A retired justice appointed by the Los Angeles County Department of Medical Examiner-Coroner to conduct an inquest into the death of a parolee shot by a sheriff’s deputy last fall issued her findings Monday, listing the medical cause of death as “a single gunshot wound to the back” and the manner of death as “by the hands of another person other than by accident.”
Justice Candace Cooper also said that following the inquest hearing that she conducted on Jan. 28, a declaration was received from the deputy who shot Fred Williams III in the yard of a residence in the unincorporated community of Willowbrook near Compton, indicating that “if he were to appear for questioning at the inquest, he would assert his Fifth Amendment right not to testify …”
Cooper, a retired California Court of Appeals justice, said she has accepted that deputy’s declaration, which will remain sealed.
The hearing conducted on the morning of Jan. 28 was adjourned when two deputies involved in the case declined to testify, claiming Fifth Amendment protections, and two homicide detectives also declined to testify, citing concerns about compromising their ongoing investigations.
Cooper also conducted a November inquest into the death of 18-year-old Andres Guardado, who was fatally shot by a deputy near Gardena. That inquest was the first in Los Angeles County in more than 30 years.
Williams, 25, was fatally shot while running from deputies on Oct. 16 while armed with a handgun.
The Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department released body camera footage on Oct. 30 of the shooting, which showed Williams on top of a garden shed with a firearm in his hand as he jumped into the yard of another property, at which point a deputy shot him. Williams died at the scene.
Before the inquest, the coroner’s office had listed the cause of death as “gunshot wound of back.”
In issuing her findings on Monday, Cooper noted that at the Jan. 28 hearing, “the declaration of the shooting deputy’s partner was submitted in evidence. The unredacted version of that declaration was received and will remain under seal at the request of the Sheriff’s Department based on a current criminal investigation into threats of harm made against the deputy.”
Cooper said copies of both declarations, redacting the deputies’ names and signatures, were made part of the public record of the inquest. Similarly, the unredacted version of the shooting deputy’s declaration “will remain under seal at the request of the Sheriff’s Department based on the reported current criminal investigation into threats of harm against the deputy,” Cooper’s report says.
“Given the totality of the circumstances, the potential criminal investigation into the (deputies’) conduct and their rights under the Constitution, I accept the above declarations in lieu of the in-person testimony and assertion of the Fifth Amendment by the shooting deputy and his partner …,” she wrote.
“After considering all of the evidence, I find, more likely true than not, that … the medical cause of death was a single gunshot wound to the back. The manner of death was by the hands of another person other than by accident.”
Cooper said her findings will be forwarded to the Los Angeles County District Attorney and the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department.
During the Jan. 28 hearing, about 12 minutes of video footage was shown that was previously released by the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department, which included law enforcement radio transmissions, security images showing deputies chasing Williams, bodycam images from the deputies, and images of Williams with a handgun in his waistband and in his hand.
A deputy can be heard on the video saying, “He pointed a gun at me.” That allegation is not clear in the footage.
Photos released by the sheriff’s department shows Williams with a handgun at his waist as he runs through the yard of a residence in the 2200 block of East 122nd Street.
The sheriff’s department alleges that Williams “engaged the deputy by pointing his firearm at him, at which point a deputy-involved shooting occurred.” In the footage, a gun is visible in his hand, but not clearly pointed at the deputy.
The deputy, who at the time did not know if Williams was struck by gunfire, then broadcasted on his emergency radio that the suspect jumped into another yard and pointed a gun at him.
Deputies recovered a loaded pistol, which the department said was not registered to Williams, who was on parole and prohibited from owning a firearm.
After the Jan. 28 hearing was adjourned, attorney Carl Douglas, who represents Williams’ mother Kenyata Lott, released a statement saying that he watched the inquest “with great anticipation” and “was hoping to learn more, that the light of transparency would be shined on this tragic case.”
“Instead, I was gravely disappointed by the charade that I was forced to witness,” he said. “Particularly disappointing was the staged refusal of the investigating detectives to comment on any aspect of their investigation, citing evidence code restrictions for the reasons supporting their refusal. It was a Kabuki dance between the county detectives and the county lawyers, reading the anticipated dialogue, thereby refusing to answer any substantive questions concerning their actions and observations.”
The victim’s father, Fred Williams Jr., told the Los Angeles Times after the sheriff’s footage was released: “The video clearly shows there was never a gun pointed in (the deputy’s) direction.”
Medical Examiner-Coroner Jonathan Lucas recently told the Civilian Oversight Commission no other inquests were planned, and he hoped that his office would have an opportunity to step back and thoughtfully consider a policy governing inquests once the Williams inquest was completed.
Lucas indicated that an inquest offers little additional insight into the manner or cause of death, but acknowledged that it addresses public calls for transparency.
“The inquest is an old, old tool and it really predates the modern era of scientific advancement,” Lucas said, noting that as its utility came into question, the inquest was largely eliminated as a practice by most large jurisdictions.