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Guard Cleared in Killing at Pelican Bay

Prison: Prosecutor finds that slaying of inmate during race melee was justifiable. Rioters still may face charges, he says.

August 17, 2000|CARL INGRAM | TIMES STAFF WRITER

SACRAMENTO — The district attorney of Del Norte County ruled Wednesday that the fatal shooting of an inmate by a guard during a Pelican Bay prison race riot was justifiable homicide.

Prosecutor Robert J. Drossel said inmate Miguel Sanchez, convicted of first-degree murder in Los Angeles, was shot as he was stabbing a black prisoner with a long, prison-made knife.

Drossel said he will decide soon whether to bring charges against individual rioters, including possible murder charges for the death of Sanchez, 38.

The Feb. 23 riot between Latino and African American prisoners at Pelican Bay, home to some of California's most violent criminals, was among the bloodiest prison eruptions in 30 years. Several dozen prisoners were injured in the half- hour conflict.

It occurred against a backdrop of increasing racial and ethnic hostilities at the maximum-security prison in Del Norte County, near the Oregon border. Prison authorities blamed Latino prisoners for attacking African American inmates in an exercise yard.

During the melee, 100 guards first attempted to restore order by what Drossel called "nonlethal measures." When these failed, guards fired their guns.

Sanchez was shot as he was stabbing an inmate with a knife that was six to eight inches long, Drossel said. The guard "feared for the life of the black inmate. One shot was fired," he said.

After investigating for nearly five months, Drossel said he determined that the officer was "performing duties to suppress a violent riot and save lives."

"Firearm use was reasonable and necessary," the prosecutor said.

The district attorney and the state Department of Corrections would not identify the guard because he was not charged with a crime.

Drossel said a second officer who fired his gun also was investigated and was not charged because he did not fire the lethal round.

Within the next month or so, Drossel said, he will decide whether there is enough evidence to prosecute inmates for their roles in the riot. He said "any number of crimes" were committed as "numerous Hispanic inmates attacked black inmates with weapons."

In addition, he said, some prisoners may be prosecuted for murder in the death of Sanchez because of their involvement in the riot. "There are some murder theories that may work with those inmates," Drossel said.

After the disturbance, authorities found 89 weapons, including crude knives and spear-like devices. Some had razor blades and nails at the tip, Drossel said.

He said 17 Latino and black inmates suffered gunshot wounds. Twenty-eight black inmates suffered stab, slash or puncture wounds while only three Latino prisoners received the same kind of injuries, he said. Many more inmates received cuts and scrapes that resulted from fists or other weapons.

Department of Corrections officials welcomed the district attorney's decision that cleared the guard.

"We are very pleased," said corrections spokesman Bob Martinez. He said officials are helping Drossel investigate inmate involvement in the riot, adding that "there is a lot of evidence there that justifies moving to file charges."

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