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USC student's 1994 shooting could be reopened as a homicide case

Lisa La Pierre was shot and paralyzed in West Hollywood. She died this year. A gang member who pleaded guilty to attempted murder and served time in a juvenile jail could face new charges in her death.

March 25, 2010|By Kate Linthicum

In 1994, someone walked up to Lisa La Pierre's parked car in West Hollywood, thrust a gun through the cracked window and fired.

The bullet didn't kill La Pierre, but it ended life as she knew it. Paralyzed from the neck down, the USC pre-law student dropped out of school and spent the next 15 years on a ventilator and in a wheelchair.

La Pierre died in January. Now officials are trying to determine whether it was the gunshot that killed her.

The coroner initially listed her death as a homicide and later deferred a final determination pending additional tests. If the death is linked to the shooting, a case that had been closed for a decade could come back to life.

The circumstances surrounding the case are very complex, said Det. Dave Gunner, of the Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department, who has spent the last two months reviewing the case in the event that it is reopened as a homicide investigation. "There is so much gray area here," he said.

For one, the gunman has already served time in juvenile detention center for attempted murder. It's unclear whether Frank Antoine Lewis, now 30, could be tried again.

Lewis, who was born in Inglewood, got his first gang tattoo when he was 10 and his first gun at 12. At the time of the shooting, he was 14.

The attack happened after a night of partying on July 11, 1994.

Bernard Nelson -- a member of the MoneySide Hustlers gang, according to Gunner -- asked Lewis to join him in a series of stickups. Lewis agreed.

Lewis later said he used Nelson's handgun to rob three people before approaching La Pierre's red Honda.

La Pierre lived in Torrance. Her mother was a baker at a supermarket. Her late father had been a truck driver. La Pierre was a junior at USC and worked three jobs to pay for school. She hoped to become a criminal lawyer.

She had gone out that night with several friends to the House of Blues on the Sunset Strip.

At 1:30 a.m. they had left the club, planning to eat at a nearby deli. But first La Pierre and her roommate, 21-year-old Samantha Holcomb, drove behind a friend as he took his date home in West Hollywood.

La Pierre pulled over to the curb at Santa Monica Boulevard and Sweetzer Avenue in West Hollywood. She was making a call on her cellphone when Lewis shot her. One bullet ripped through her spinal cord. Another lodged in Holcomb's leg.

Holcomb's injuries were not serious. La Pierre woke up in the hospital, paralyzed.

Detectives working the case tracked Lewis down three years later to a juvenile facility where he was serving a sentence for stabbing a gang rival.

Lewis pleaded guilty to attempted murder and served several years in a juvenile jail. He later testified in another murder case against Nelson, the gang leader, who now sits on death row at San Quentin State Prison.

In an interview in the Los Angeles Times in 2000, Lewis said he had not been able to shake the guilt over what he had done.

"I had a dream Lisa shot me in my neck," he said, "and I was paralyzed and she was rolling me down stairs."

La Pierre lived with her mother after the shooting. La Pierre's mother appears to have died in recent years and she may have been living with a sister at the time of her death, Gunner said. He has not been able to get in touch with anyone in her family.

Because La Pierre was a shooting victim, her death was initially listed as a homicide, said John Kades, a spokesman for the Los Angeles County coroner's office. But investigators will not make a final conclusion as to the cause of death until they get the results from the autopsy, which should be imminent, he said.

"The question is, did that attack contribute to her death in any way, shape or form?" Kades said.

Gunner said he has been speculating about what La Pierre died from, and whether it was linked to the shooting.

"What if the wheelchair fell over and she hit her head and it caused her death?" he said. "Well, she was in that chair because of the gunshot wound."

Stanford University law professor Robert Weisberg said Supreme Court precedents would allow the district attorney to prosecute Lewis for La Pierre's death, even though Lewis already served time for the attempted murder.

Such a scenario would not be double jeopardy, he said, because at the time of the initial trial, prosecutors could not have charged Lewis with the higher charge of murder because La Pierre hadn't yet died.

But Weisberg said prosecutors would be hard-pressed to prove that the shooting caused La Pierre's death, especially because she lived for 15 years after the accident.

"The legal standard for causation would be incredible mushy," he said. "If the prosecution wants to go forward with this they can, but they would have to convince a jury the death was caused by these circumstances."

The fact that Lewis was a juvenile at the time of the crime is "another bizarre, complicating factor," Weis- berg said, which could make it difficult for the prosecution to try him as an adult.

Together, the circumstances make the case what lawyers like to call "an exam question," he said.

"It's some ridiculous narrative that has 17 different issues in them that you only see on law tests -- until it actually happens."

A spokeswoman for the L.A. County district attorney's office, Jane Robison, would not say whether the district attorney's office planned to prosecute if the death was determined to be a homicide. "No idea," Robison said. "Can't answer it."

"Until that ruling is determined, it's not a case," she said. "It's a hypothetical."

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