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Pair freed in child's killing

Police say the gunmen were firing in self-defense at a rival gang member when the girl, 9, was hit by a stray bullet that entered her Angelino Heights home.

January 17, 2007|Richard Winton and Tami Abdollah | Times Staff Writers

A few days after a bullet from a gang shooting tore into an Angelino Heights home last month, killing a 9-year-old girl, police announced with much fanfare that they had arrested the two gunmen.

But the suspects -- Cesar Zamora, 23, and Steven Castanon, 20 -- are now out of jail and back in their old neighborhood, to the dismay of residents who held candlelight vigils to memorialize Charupha Wongwisetsiri.

Police released the men without filing charges after determining that Zamora or Castanon fired the shot that killed Charupha in self-defense when a rival gang member pulled up in a car and tried to shoot them in front of their apartment complex next to Charupha's home.

The situation has shaken and angered residents of Angelino Heights, a diverse neighborhood with commanding views of downtown Los Angeles. The area includes rows of grand Victorian houses restored by television writers and downtown office workers side-by-side with apartments housing working-class families.

"They made it big news when they arrested them and then they quietly let them go," community activist James McHargue said. "I think it is outrageous if the prosecutors don't charge the people who fired these guns."

Bob and Patti Good, who helped organize a candlelight vigil for the girl, can't understand why the two shooters are back on the street.

All of a sudden, the men "who gunned down that little girl" are back, said Bob Good, 62, a title insurance officer. "They are looking for him and he's looking for them. Is there going to be more violence now?

"Usually if someone gets killed it's a bad guy, but now it's an innocent party. You cannot get more innocent than a little girl, and people identify with that."

Authorities insist that they are simply following the law.

"Evidence was presented that it was self-defense, and we did not feel we could charge the two people at this time," said Jane Robison of the Los Angeles County district attorney's office.

Instead, police detectives say they now are trying to build a murder case against the man who tried to shoot at Zamora and Castanon -- even though his gun jammed and he didn't get off a shot.

He caused "this horrible event, and we hope to make a strong case against him in this murder," LAPD Lt. Paul Vernon said.

Legal experts said the circumstances of the shooting would make it difficult to build a murder case against Zamora and Castanon.

According to police, the men were sitting outside an apartment on East Kensington Road when a car pulled up. One man got out, walked onto the apartment property and pulled out a gun. Witnesses said he tried to shoot but his gun apparently jammed, according to law enforcement sources.

Zamora and Castanon pulled guns of their own and fired several times. None of the shots hit the gunman, who fled in the car. But one bullet traveled down the street and into Charupha's home.

Police believe the shooting was gang-related. But detectives concluded that the pair had the right to shoot because the gunman had pulled out a weapon and seemed ready to fire at them.

Robert Pugsley, a criminal law professor at Southwestern Law School, said the circumstances of the shooting would give Zamora and Castanon a strong self-defense case in court.

"A person has a right of self-defense, and third-party damage, as sad as it may be, is considered an unintended consequence," Pugsley said.

Prosecutors could bring charges if the shooting suggested an act of recklessness, but the sudden nature of the Angelino Heights attack -- a gunman leaping out of a car and aiming a weapon -- would make that a hard point to prove, he said.

Peter Keane, a professor of law and former dean of Golden Gate Law School, agreed. But prosecutors can pursue an "unreasonable self-defense" manslaughter charge if they believe the gunman's actions were based on an unreasonable belief compared to the threat, Keane said. In that case the killing is not a murder but a manslaughter because they did not act with malice, he added.

The issue of self-defense in gang shootings in which bystanders are killed or wounded has been a matter of debate for years in Los Angeles.

In 2003, a mother decorating her Christmas tree in South Los Angeles was killed by a stray bullet fired during a gun battle between two gangs.

The LAPD eventually arrested the two suspects who fired the shots after someone in a passing car sprayed bullets in their direction.

But prosecutors decided not to pursue the case, agreeing with investigators that the men apparently acted in self-defense.

The reasoning doesn't sit well with some residents of Angelino Heights.

Jim Prager, 60, an attorney, said Zamora and Castanon need to be held accountable.

"They ran away to another known gang house ... they are not innocent people. This represents a lazy" prosecution, he said.

Neither Zamora nor Castanon could be reached for comment. (Castanon was arrested Monday night in Hollywood on suspicion of weapons possession.)

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