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LAPD tried to reverse a coroner's verdict in girl's death

After a 19-month-old child was killed by police in a shootout, a high-ranking official pushed a campaign to reopen the investigation into her death. The intense lobbying failed.

January 07, 2009|Joel Rubin

The Los Angeles Police Department waged an aggressive behind-the-scenes campaign to convince coroner's officials to change their finding that a SWAT officer's bullet killed a 19-month-old girl held hostage by her father three years ago, according to records reviewed by The Times.

The intense lobbying effort, which involved one of the department's highest-ranking officials, led to significant friction between the LAPD and coroner's office. It also raises questions about whether the LAPD crossed an ethical line in pushing so hard, some medical and law enforcement experts said.

Ultimately, the LAPD's campaign led nowhere. The coroner has stood firmly behind its conclusions. But the Police Department's unusual attempt to have the case reopened underscores the deep, lasting effect the death of the child, Suzie Pena, has had on the officers involved and on SWAT as a whole.

The elite special weapons and tactics unit had never before killed a hostage in thousands of operations over nearly 40 years and had long operated as an insular, seemingly untouchable group shrouded in mystique. The shooting exposed SWAT, used largely to serve warrants on dangerous suspects and handle standoffs involving barricaded people, to vigorous scrutiny by a panel of consultants convened by LAPD Chief William J. Bratton that conducted a top-to-bottom review of how it operates. Out of the review came changes aimed at making the unit less isolated from the rest of the department and reforms in the way members are selected.

Through a spokesman, Bratton refused to comment for this article and refused to allow other LAPD officials to respond, citing ongoing lawsuits regarding the Pena shooting. Coroner's officials also declined to comment.

Tragic shooting

By all accounts, the shooting on July 11, 2005, ended tragically. Armed and high on cocaine, a suicidal Jose Raul Pena faced off with police at his used-car dealership in Watts. Pena traded fire with officers who had surrounded the lot, then barricaded himself and his daughter in a cramped office. SWAT members, under the mistaken belief that a sniper had wounded Pena, stormed the office. Holding his 19-month-old child in one arm, Pena opened fire on the officers through a thin wall as they approached, setting off a fierce fire-fight.

When the shooting stopped, Pena was dead.

So was the little girl. A single bullet had struck her in the head.

The tragedy drew intense scrutiny. Bratton angrily defended the actions of his officers, laying the blame at Pena's feet. He promised, however, that the department would not shy away from the truth. "It is quite likely our officers killed both the suspect and the baby," he said at an emotional press conference two days after the incident. "We're not going to hide that."

The next day the Los Angeles County coroner's office -- the agency legally responsible for determining the cause of all deaths in the county -- confirmed Bratton's fears. The wound to the girl's head had been caused by a high-velocity bullet fired from one of the rifles SWAT members used that day, the coroner concluded. A grim-faced Bratton again expressed "deep regret."

Internal LAPD and coroner records recently reviewed by The Times, however, show that Bratton's public acceptance of responsibility quickly gave way to something far more complicated. For more than a year afterward, the records show, the LAPD quietly and aggressively pursued its own theory that Suzie Pena's father -- instead of a SWAT officer -- had shot the infant.

The idea that Pena had killed his daughter came from a 32-year-old criminalist in the LAPD's crime laboratory. With four years on the job, Amy Driver had been assigned to the forensic team examining the ballistic evidence left behind by the dozens of bullets fired by Pena and the SWAT officers. Within days of the shooting, records show, Driver reviewed the coroner's detailed photos and X-rays of Suzie Pena's injuries and became convinced that the fatal wound had likely been caused by a bullet fired at close range from the father's handgun.

Driver, who has since left the department, took her idea about Pena to her supervisor, Doreen Hudson. The theory resonated enough with Hudson that she bought an infant mannequin in an unsuccessful attempt to re-create the gunshot wound, according to an internal LAPD case log of the investigation and Hudson's testimony in a suit brought by the Pena family. She also began looking for outside "qualified medical experts," according to the log. The LAPD's criminalists are civilian employees trained to examine physical evidence, but did not have the medical qualifications to prove Driver's theory.

Copies of the LAPD log and other documents were provided to The Times by someone closely involved in the case.

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