A Los Angeles County sheriff's videotape that shows deputies fatally shooting a domestic violence suspect contradicts the deputies' official account of the incident and establishes that "this shooting did not have to happen," an attorney suing the county said Tuesday.
Deputies said they shot Deondre Brunston on Aug. 24, 2003, because he told them he was armed, stood up and pointed what appeared to be a weapon at them when they released a police dog to help subdue him. Deputies fired scores of rounds, killing Brunston and, inadvertently, the police dog.
Brunston, 23, was unarmed, holding a white sandal in his hand, not a gun.
Attorney Luis Carrillo, who represents some of Brunston's relatives in a civil rights lawsuit, said the videotape shows that Brunston was still on one knee and had dropped the sandal when deputies opened fire.
"His hand was clearly wide open and empty at the time they began to shoot him," he said. "He not was not pointing anything at the deputies."
Additionally, Carrillo contends an off-duty lieutenant who had been drinking needlessly set into motion the fatal shooting by giving an order to deputies over a cellphone to release the police dog to bite Brunston as a means of subduing him. The Sheriff's Department calls the tactic a "directed bite."
He said the order was given even though a crisis negotiation team was en route to the scene and Brunston had said he would surrender if he could first talk to his girlfriend.
"They blasted him to kingdom come," Carrillo said.
Dennis Gonzales, an attorney for the county who is defending the deputies, said the deputies' actions were justified given the suspect's statements that he was armed and would shoot any deputy who approached. He said the videotape shows Brunston making "furtive movements" after the dog was released, which the deputies considered threatening.
"The tape speaks for itself," he said.
Gonzales said the judge overseeing the case has concluded that the shooting was lawful and dismissed the complaint against the deputies who fired their weapons. Allegations of wrongdoing involving the supervisors of the incident remain to be litigated.
Gonzales also rejected the notion that the off-duty lieutenant was at fault. He said the lieutenant was at a party and had a couple of drinks when he was called by deputies at the standoff. The lieutenant authorized the use of the canine, but left the decision to do so with those at the scene, Gonzales said.
At least two deputies, however, have said the lieutenant gave an order to release the dog and have it bite the suspect, Carrillo said.
He and another attorney representing Brunston's relatives, Cheryl Turner, called for justice in the case at a news conference Tuesday night at the Bethel AME Church on Western Avenue in South Los Angeles.
Also in attendance were African American community leaders and more than 30 supporters of Brunston's family. Among them was Eboni Bentley, 25, the mother of Brunston's 7-year-old twin sons.
"They miss him every day," Bentley said. "They will never see him again. He was stolen and brutally killed."
Carrillo said it was a "sad day" and predicted "a long road for justice, and that's what we want: justice."
Turner praised a sergeant who has come forward and given a sworn declaration that the dog should not have been unleashed on Brunston. "This was an egregious case," she said. "There was no reason to fire upon him."
Sheriff's officials acknowledge that there were problems with the handling of the incident.
The officials said there was poor communication among the deputies and faulted deputies who were not "designated shooters" for firing their weapons.
Several deputies were disciplined last year in connection with the incident. The discipline ranged from two- to five-day suspensions, according to a report by Michael Gennaco, the head of the sheriff's Office of Independent Review.
According to sheriff's officials, shortly before the shooting, Brunston's pregnant girlfriend called 911, saying her boyfriend had assaulted her. When deputies arrived at her apartment, Brunston fled. He was cornered on the front porch of a nearby residence. At that point, he hid his right hand from view and told deputies he had a firearm.
Brunston said he was not afraid to die and would shoot any deputy who tried to apprehend him. He said he would shoot the dog too. The standoff lasted about an hour.
Shortly before the shooting occurred, Brunston shouted a warning at the officers: "If you kill me before I draw this gun, you are going to be in big ... trouble."