WASHINGTON — One month after the Orange County Grand Jury refused to issue a criminal indictment, federal officials have stepped in to review the circumstances surrounding the Christmas Day shooting of a veteran sheriff's deputy by a fellow officer during a training exercise.
The U.S. Justice Department is investigating whether grounds exist to indict Deputy Brian P. Scanlan under federal criminal civil rights law, Justice spokesman Myron Marlin said Friday.
The inquiry, launched in Washington, will try to determine whether Scanlan was simply negligent or intended to harm his fellow officer, Deputy Darryn Leroy Robins, 30, who died of head wounds inflicted by a single gunshot.
The review may answer criticisms from Orange County minority groups who have insisted that the district attorney's office was too close to the Sheriff's Department to fairly investigate the volatile case. These critics have also questioned whether race played a part in the shooting, because Robins was black and Scanlan is white.
Community groups had prodded the Justice Department to reopen the case after the grand jury made a rare rejection March 10 of a prosecutor's request for a manslaughter indictment against Scanlan. The district attorney's office, which conducted the investigation, said the 32-year-old deputy was "grossly negligent" in training with a loaded weapon during an impromptu exercise that led up to the fatal shooting.
Authorities say the two deputies were running through a mock car-stop behind a Lake Forest movie theater, with Robins playing the suspect and Scanlan the arresting officer. Scanlan maintained in an interview with investigators after the episode that he shot Robins accidentally after he was startled to see him pull a handgun from the visor of his car. Robins was apparently imitating a technique used by gang members to get the jump on police.
Marlin said FBI agents have been dispatched to gather evidence weighing whether Scanlan broke a federal statute that bars anyone from depriving a person of his civil rights. But to lodge such a charge, officials would have to demonstrate that the deputy wanted to harm Scanlan.
Orange County prosecutors were skeptical about whether that could be done.
"After three days of testimony and 14 witnesses, the Orange County Grand Jury was unwilling to indict for aggravated, reckless and grossly negligent behavior. So is it likely the feds will indict? I don't think so," said Assistant Dist. Atty. John D. Conley.
Scanlan and his attorney, James B. Stotler, could not be reached for comment. Undersheriff Raul Ramos said his department will cooperate with the federal investigation, but he said the FBI and other federal officials have not notified them formally about the review.
"Quite frankly, this thing has lingered on and on," said Ramos. "My heart goes out to the families of the affected officers as it gets prolonged into another investigation. On the other hand, the facts are pretty straightforward and there's nothing to hide. So if somebody else looks into it, that's fine."
Leaders of various community groups praised the Justice Department's decision to review the case, arguing that federal investigators will have a more independent perspective than the district attorney's office, which works closely with the Sheriff's Department.
"That's the only way uneasiness will be laid to rest," said Amin David, a Latino activist with Los Amigos of Orange County, who met with members of the grand jury weeks ago to discuss this and other cases of minority interest.
Eugene M. Wheeler, president of the civic group, 100 Black Men of Orange County, said the federal investigation probably would have been unnecessary had local authorities investigated the incident in a more open fashion to begin with.
"They could have prevented all this embarrassment," said Wheeler, whose group has consistently complained about the process. "They should do their job. Their explanation was not satisfactory as to why the case went to the grand jury when the district attorney indicated that charges should have been filed."
In the local investigation, prosecutors relied heavily on information provided by Scanlan. They say there were no other witnesses to the shooting because two other deputies on the scene were waiting around a corner for their turn to run through the exercise.
Times Staff Writer Dan Weikel contributed to this report.