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Pair Won't Face Charges in Death

A stray bullet that fatally wounded a woman in her home was fired in self-defense, prosecutors decide.

March 09, 2004|Jill Leovy | Times Staff Writer

Two suspects arrested after a mother decorating her Christmas tree was killed by a stray bullet won't be charged because prosecutors decided the men acted in self-defense during a gang shooting.

Prosecutors declined to press homicide charges against Anthony Mayo, 28, and Daniel Shelton, 42, who were arrested last month on suspicion of murder in the gunshot death of Laudelina Salazar Garcia.

Salazar, 39, was kneeling next to her Christmas tree in her South Los Angeles home on Dec. 12 when a bullet pierced her front door and struck her in the neck. She died of her wounds two days later.

Police argued that the actions of Shelton and Mayo -- returning fire from a passing car -- resulted in Salazar's death and that they should be prosecuted for murder.

But prosecutors concluded that Mayo and Shelton were acting in self-defense after gunmen driving by in a car opened fire at them.

The two could reasonably argue that they were trying to defend themselves against the drive-by shooters, said Deputy Dist. Atty. Carol Rash.

"They are allowed to defend themselves if they are being shot at," said Rash. "Any killing they caused, they are not criminally liable for."

Rather, she said, those liable for Salazar's murder are the unidentified assailants who first shot at Mayo and Shelton.

A police detective on the case said he strongly believes the men should be charged with murder and has asked his superiors to consider filing an appeal with prosecutors.

Mayo and Shelton were standing outside a house less than a block from Salazar's home when the shots came from the passing car, according to police accounts. The men were firing back at the attackers when Salazar was struck.

"The guys who are liable are the guys who started it," Rash said. "They provoked a deadly response from gang members on the street that led to the death of an innocent."

Legal and law enforcement experts agreed with Rash's analysis and conclusion.

Sharon Dolovich, acting professor of law at the UCLA School of Law, said Rash's decision is consistent with the way courts interpret the right of self-defense, which can offer "a complete justification for the use of force" in response to a deadly attack.

Although there is debate about when such a threat ceases to be imminent, Dolovich said the self-defense claim would still probably hold up in court. That's because the courts would be reluctant to pass judgment on people who have just been shot at, and who might be "kind of panicked and freaked out" as a result, she said.

Dolovich agreed that the gunmen in the car should be held to blame. "If they were able to catch those perpetrators, nobody would be saying the prosecutors aren't doing their job," she said. "But instead we are left with the people who were shot at, and with trying to pin this on them."

Salazar's death is appalling, she said, and it's natural that people would look for someone to blame. But in this case, "I applaud the prosecutor for resisting the impulse to press charges ... just to satisfy the demand for retribution."

But the gunmen have not been caught, and the prosecutors' decision has disturbed police, who said Mayo and Shelton's reaction to being shot at was "overkill."

Karen Jackson-Williams, a Los Angeles police detective assigned to the case, described a painful episode in which she and her partner informed Salazar's family that murder charges would not be filed against Shelton and Mayo.

For Juan Ovando, Salazar's husband, "there was no rhyme or reason for why his wife had to die behind his locked door," she said. "He was very sad. He tried to understand."

The couple's 14-year-old daughter was quiet and somber as the detectives explained the decision, the detective said. "You can't blame her," said Jackson-Williams. "She is thinking that it doesn't seem fair."

Ovando "can't afford to move, so he sees these people every single day," said Jackson-Williams' partner, Stan Evans. "It is really hard."

LAPD Det. Don Richards said he disagrees with the prosecutors' reasoning and has asked his superiors to consider appealing the decision. "This car was well beyond the location. They were shooting at it as it was fleeing," he said.

Neither Mayo nor Shelton came forward voluntarily, and neither was carrying firearms legally. Richards said the incident has been reported to their parole officers as a possible violation.

Mayo and Shelton as "ex-cons with handguns," who emptied their magazines to make sure their enemies didn't come back, and who have so far declined to cooperate with police, Jackson-Williams said.

But in the eyes of the law, not only Salazar, but also Mayo and Shelton, "were actually victims," of the drive-by attack, Rash said.

The reasoning, she said, is the same as in the case of a liquor store clerk who fires a gun at a robber in self-defense, and accidentally strikes a bystander. In such a case, she said, it is the robber, not the clerk, who is legally responsible for the murder.

Similarly, if the men who fired from the passing car are caught, they could be charged both with attempted murder in the assault on Mayo and Shelton, and with murdering Salazar, even though they didn't fire the bullets that killed her, Rash said.

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