The Los Angeles Police Department tried to persuade coroner's officials to change their finding that a SWAT officer's bullet killed a 1-year-old who was held hostage by her father, according to a published report.
While Police Chief William Bratton had publicly accepted the coroner's conclusion that an officer was likely responsible for killing Suzie Pena in July 2005, police quietly pursued their own theory that her father shot the child, according to internal department documents and coroner's records reviewed by the Los Angeles Times.
However, Chief Bratton says comments about unethical behavior on behalf of his staff is irresponsible journalism.
"I take great offense at the LA Times article," said Bratton, "This idea that we were violating ethics in a comprehensive investigation. Shame on them. I have an obligation to my personnel to investigate as thoroughly as possible."
Bratton says he asked his staff to do all it could to look at all angles of the incident, in the event it could clear his officers of the thought that they killed an innocent girl.
"They are bearing the burden of the feeling of possibly killing that child. I will do everything in my power, if there's a chance to disprove that, to try to do that," said Bratton.
According to the Times, Dr. James Ribe, the senior deputy medical examiner who performed the autopsy on Suzie Pena, wrote that the LAPD was "scientifically and ethically irresponsible" for meeting with him about the case. "All this raises extremely disturbing questions about the integrity of the LAPD's approach to this investigation."
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The deadly shooting happened on July 11, 2005, when Jose Raul Pena, armed and high on cocaine, barricaded himself with his daughter at his used-car dealership in Watts. SWAT members, thinking a sniper had wounded the gunman, stormed the office and fired at Pena, who was holding his 19-month-old child in one arm. Both Penas were killed, the little girl with one bullet in her head.
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 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.
However, a staffer in the LAPD's crime lab, Amy Driver, examined the evidence -- photos and X-rays and ballistics reports -- and became convinced that the girl's fatal wound was caused by a bullet fired at close range from her father's handgun.
Driver, her supervisor and staff from the department's Internal Affairs office met with the coroner's forensic pathologists to convince them that the girl's injuries were not consistent with those of a rifle bullet, according to notes from the meeting and court documents.
Ribe and another forensic pathologist refuted each of the LAPD's points, which were outlined in a PowerPoint presentation. The coroner's chief medical examiner, Dr. Lakshmanan Sathyavagiswaran, urged the police to hire an outside medical expert to review the case.
Ribe was upset that the LAPD suggested that he and his colleagues had made a mistake. Ribe's notes on the meeting described Driver's argument as weak and full of "glaring technical errors." He was also concerned that police officials let a criminalist without medical training to lobby in a high-profile case involving officers in her own department.
Police criminalists are civilian employees trained to examine physical evidence, but do not have medical training like forensic pathologists.
Police eventually found a forensic pathologist at the Georgia Bureau of Investigation to review the case, and he found "little or no good evidence" that the wound came from a handgun.
Bratton defended the actions of his SWAT officers Wednesday but says he accepts the final verdict on how Suzie Pena died.
"We accept that, our officers will have to deal with it," he said, "But the idea the LA Times referenced comments from some character that we may be in ethical violation by conducting a full investigation, shame on that individual. Who the hell is he? And shame on the LA Times, they should've never done that story."