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Jury Refuses to Indict Deputy in Fellow O.C. Officer's Killing : Justice: Panel overrides recommendation of prosecutors, who sought charge of involuntary manslaughter on grounds of gross negligence. Decision raises outcry from minority groups.

March 11, 1994|ERIC LICHTBLAU | TIMES STAFF WRITER

SANTA ANA — The Orange County Grand Jury, rejecting the recommendation of local prosecutors, decided Thursday not to indict Sheriff's Deputy Brian P. Scanlan in the Christmas Day shooting death of a fellow deputy during an impromptu training exercise gone awry.

The decision sparked an immediate outcry from minority groups that have lashed out at authorities for their handling of the case, which involves the death of a black deputy at the hands of a white fellow officer. But the head of the Orange County Deputy Sheriffs Assn. said he believed most officers will be "relieved" by the decision.

Prosecutors had recommended that Scanlan be indicted on involuntary manslaughter charges, because they saw his conduct as "not simply negligent, but . . . aggravated, reckless and grossly negligent," according to a statement by Dist. Atty. Michael R. Capizzi.

But Capizzi said prosecutors respected the "collective wisdom" of the grand jury in reaching its decision.

"I feel confident," said Assistant Dist. Atty. John Conley, "that we can look anyone in the eye and know we presented this case fairly, and the grand jury simply decided not to indict."

The grand jury made its decision after four days of closed hearings that began last week and included sworn testimony from 14 witnesses and the examination of 25 pieces of evidence that were offered by the district attorney's office.

Scanlan, 32, a former Army private and a sheriff's training officer who remains on paid leave from the department pending an internal investigation, declined to testify before the grand jury. But the panel did view a 90-minute, videotaped interview with Scanlan that was made by investigators on the day that he fatally shot Darryn Leroy Robins, 30.

With only rare exceptions, grand juries generally follow the recommendations of prosecutors who bring potential criminal cases before them. But Conley said the Scanlan case was "a close call" that could have gone either way.

"The issue in this case is a close one. Everyone agrees that Brian Scanlan didn't handle this right by going up to the officer with a loaded weapon and the safety off," Conley said. "What the grand jury apparently decided was that it may have been bad, but it wasn't that bad."

The shooting has had an emotional and far-reaching impact in the county, creating disbelief among cops in the street, prompting a review of safety procedures in the Sheriff's Department and giving voice to a black political movement that had remained largely dormant in Orange County.

"I am not satisfied and I believe that many in the community will feel the same way," said Eugene Wheeler, a health care administrator who heads a business and civic group called 100 Black Men of Orange County. "We got no official explanation as to what evidence (the grand jury) considered, so it's hard for us to know."

In the end, for all its volatility, the case came down to a technical reading of whether Scanlan's fatal shooting of Robins constituted the "aggravated, reckless and grossly negligent" act that prosecutors saw, Conley said.

The grand jury decided it did not, but just how the panel interpreted the legal principles in the case may never be known. Seven members refused to talk about the case, most saying they had been instructed not to discuss the proceedings.

The only word from the jury was a one-sentence release, signed by foreman Frank V. Kroeger, that read: 'The Orange County Grand Jury, in the Brian Patrick Scanlan hearing, has determined not to return an indictment on this matter."

Prosecutors said that the grand jury proceedings in the case will not be released publicly, but that the district attorney's office is considering the release of portions of its own files in the case--in part to help assuage lingering suspicions about what happened on Dec. 25.

"When you see (the evidence in) this case, you see it's not a racial case, it's not an intentional case and all the other stuff that people have been nervous about," Conley said.

Robins was killed in a parking lot behind the Twin-Peaks Plaza movie theater in Lake Forest.

While many details of the shooting have slowly and gradually emerged in press accounts, authorities offered the official version of the mishap for the first time Thursday following the grand jury's decision.

Conley said that Scanlan had been bothered by techniques used by California Highway Patrol officers in a felony car stop in which he had assisted earlier in the day. He and Robins then decided to run through some training techniques to aid a trainee riding with Scanlan, and they picked the parking lot as their locale after responding to a call for assistance at a nearby restaurant.

The trainee and another deputy waited around a corner while Scanlan and Robins prepared to run through the exercise. Robins played the part of a suspect in a car stop, while Scanlan approached the car, drew his loaded, 9-millimeter pistol and rested it on the roof of the car.

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