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Shooting Death of Inmate at Issue

Prison officials say use of deadly force by guard was needed to protect another prisoner during a riot, but witnesses raise questions.

October 21, 2003|Mark Arax | Times Staff Writer

FRESNO — In the days after a guard shot and killed an inmate at Pleasant Valley State Prison last week, corrections staff said a "major riot" involving 300 prisoners had led to the shooting. The use of deadly force, they said, stopped one particularly savage brawl that threatened the life of an inmate.

But prison videotapes and eyewitness accounts detail a far smaller incident involving about 50 inmates in the recreation yard where the deadly shot rang out, according to Fresno County sheriff's investigators. No inmate in the yard carried a weapon or caused serious injury to another inmate, corrections officials now acknowledge.

The inmate whose life was said to have been in danger walked away from the fight with bruises on his face, corrections officials said. Likewise, no guard faced imminent peril.

Two teams of investigators -- one from the sheriff's office and one from the state Department of Corrections -- are now probing the Oct. 12 incident, only the second fatal shooting at a California prison since deadly force guidelines were tightened in 1999.

Corrections officials say it is too early to determine whether the shooting was justified. But in past probes, they acknowledge, the absence of weapons and "imminent great bodily harm" have led investigators to rule such shootings unjustified, costing the state millions of dollars in victim settlements.

"Each shooting is fully investigated not just by a corrections team, but by outside law enforcement," said Margot Bach, a state corrections spokeswoman. "There's a lot more work to do before determining whether this shooting is justified or not."

The Fresno County coroner's office said Alejandro Enriquez, a 28-year-old Los Angeles man serving a 15-years-to-life sentence for second-degree murder, was killed by a single gunshot wound to the chest. Prison staff say he was the aggressor in one of several fistfights that erupted in the Facility B yard at the prison in the rural town of Coalinga.

They say Enriquez refused to heed repeated warnings to stop brawling and continued pummeling another inmate even after guards fired five rounds of nonlethal wood blocks.

"It appears that [Enriquez] was the aggressor and was beating a defenseless inmate," said Lt. Paul Sanchez, the prison's spokesman. "One officer fired a warning shot and the second officer fired for effect. I imagine they perceived it to be a life-threatening situation."

But one corrections administrator, who asked not to be named for fear of job retaliation, said the fact that the victim in the fight was not badly injured raises serious questions about the shooting. "Our shooting policy is pretty clear. You don't fire a deadly round to stop a fight unless you're darn sure an inmate is about to be killed."

The shooting took place near the same dining hall where inmate Octavio Orozco, 23, was shot and killed by a correctional officer in 1998. In the weeks after that shooting, a high-ranking female administrator went public with charges that Orozco's death had resulted from a grave miscalculation by a careless guard. The fight posed no serious harm to inmates or staff, she argued, and could have been stopped any number of ways short of a gunshot.

Orozco, who was serving a nine-year sentence for drug dealing, was one of 39 inmates to die statewide during the 1990s as a result of California's controversial practice of shooting at prisoners engaged in fistfights and melees. After a yearlong probe by The Times that ended with the state's reversing its stance and declaring many of the shootings unjustified, the policy on using deadly force was changed.

The new policy makes firing live rounds from a Mini 14 semiautomatic rifle a last resort. A shot to kill is warranted only to prevent an inmate from escaping or causing catastrophic injuries to staff or another inmate.

The Orozco family later filed a wrongful death lawsuit that was settled in February for $600,000.

The Facility B unit at Pleasant Valley houses about 1,200 inmates -- more than double its capacity. To ease overcrowding, some inmates are housed in the gym. During the evening meal on Oct. 12, guards were releasing inmates from one building when a fight broke out between two prisoners from rival Mexican groups.

Officers stopped the fight and placed the two inmates back in their cells, according to an official account. After both inmates assured guards that no bad blood existed between the groups, the releases of prisoners for the evening meal continued. A few minutes later, however, two more inmates from the same groups began fighting in the yard, which is the size of 1 1/2 football fields, according to prison staff. That fight touched off a melee involving 50 other inmates in the same yard.

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