Los Angeles County sheriff’s Deputy Luke Liu has been acquitted of manslaughter in the 2016 killing of an unarmed man at a Norwalk gas station, marking a bitter defeat for prosecutors in their first attempt to convict a law enforcement officer in a shooting in more than two decades.
Liu pulled his cruiser into a 7-Eleven parking lot in February 2016 and approached a white Acura near the gas pumps, believing the car to be stolen. When the deputy asked the driver, Francisco Garcia, who owned the vehicle, he told Liu it was “none of his business,” according to a Sheriff’s Department report.
Grainy surveillance video from the scene shows Liu step back from the driver’s side door to look at the Acura’s license plate, just as Garcia tries to drive away. Liu opened fire in response, striking Garcia several times in the back. Liu performed CPR on the 26-year-old, but Garcia died at the scene.
The shooting was relatively unknown until Los Angeles County Deputy Dist. Atty. Jackie Lacey filed manslaughter charges against Liu in 2018. Prosecutors have argued Liu acted recklessly, escalating a minor stop of a nonviolent man into a deadly confrontation that also endangered everyone else in the gas station as well as nearby drivers.
“The defendant made one tragically bad decision after another, contrary to common sense, contrary to his own training and contrary to his own departmental policy. He lost his head,” Deputy Dist. Atty. Christopher Baker said during his closing arguments earlier this week. “The shooting was unreasonable, unnecessary and therefore, also, illegal.”
Liu’s defense attorney, Michael Schwartz, has argued that Garcia’s car struck Liu and contends the deputy actually began shooting when he was at the driver’s side door, rather than from behind. Liu saw Garcia reach for something and feared he had a weapon, according to Schwartz, giving him reason to believe his life was in danger.
Garcia did not have a gun. Although crime scene photos show that there was both a pipe and a metal steering wheel lock in the Acura, there’s no evidence he tried to strike Liu with either item. Several witnesses said the car never struck Liu, and they thought Garcia was reaching for the Acura’s gear shift to drive away.
Still, Schwartz argued, Liu’s perception is all that matters from a legal perspective.
“You’re supposed to interpret things not with 20/20 hindsight, but with the perspective of a reasonable officer on the scene,” he said.
Liu had been a deputy for roughly 8 ½ years at the time of the shooting. Schwartz, the Sheriff’s Department and the union representing rank-and-file deputies have declined to comment on his status with the agency.
Garcia had lived most of his life in Norwalk and left behind a young daughter, said his mother, Maria Luz Ruiz Partida. Ruiz Partida has sat in the gallery for nearly every second of the two-week trial, often tearing up as prosecutors repeatedly displayed footage of her son’s death and images of him bleeding out in the parking lot as Liu crouched nearby.
Court records show Garcia had been arrested multiple times for burglary, drug possession and vehicle offenses, but he had never been charged with a violent crime. Ruiz Partida said her son would “never hurt anyone” and had never owned a gun. Although prosecutors have acknowledged that the car was stolen, no evidence has been submitted showing Garcia actually stole it.