A security guard charged in the shooting death of a homeless man he suspected of shoplifting at a Walgreens in Hollywood pleaded not guilty Thursday to murder.
Donald Vincent Ciota II, of Covina, faces one count of murder with an allegation that he used a firearm as a deadly and dangerous weapon. The Dec. 2 shooting occurred during a confrontation with 21-year-old Jonathan Hart inside the Sunset and Vine store. Ciota is accused of fatally shooting Hart in the back as he ran away, according to a statement from prosecutors.
Los Angeles Superior Court Judge Teresa Sullivan ordered Ciota to return to court Feb. 13, when a date is expected to be set for a hearing to determine whether there is enough evidence for him to stand trial.
Ciota faces up to life in state prison, if convicted. He remains jailed on $3 million bond.
Ciota is represented by famed attorney Mark Geragos, who is known for representing celebrities like Michael Jackson and Winona Ryder. Geragos, who requested a bail reduction, said he was perplexed about why a murder charge was filed.
Outside court, Geragos told reporters that he believes the case was "filed prematurely."
"There was no provocation by my client at all. This is not a murder case," he said, adding that the reports he has seen about the shooting "do not support a murder case."
Video from the moments following the shooting was recorded by a man who entered the store with Hart. It showed the security guard making a phone call while standing over Hart's body. Red wine from shattered bottles can be seen on the floor.
At a Dec. 11 news conference, attorney Carl Douglas announced that he is filing a lawsuit on behalf of Hart's family. Douglas said Hart was not shoplifting, but the two had argued over an item priced at $2.99 water flavoring product.
Douglas, a member of OJ Simpson's defense team in the former USC and NFL star's 1995 murder trial, alleged that Hart, also known as Sky Young, was targeted because he was black and gay.
"Jonathan Hart was unarmed. He was a homeless, gay, black man who was profiled we say because he was homeless, who was harassed we say because he was gay and who was shot we say because he was black," Douglas told reporters outside court. "It's clear that he did not pose a deadly threat to anyone."
Attorney Christopher B. Dolan, representing Hart's mother, told reporters the woman wants it known that "her son was not a person who posed a threat" and that her son "did not do anything that would warrant him being shot."
"The facts are clear and the prosecutor should and would be able to prove the facts that a murder was committed and she wants this man held accountable for the death of her son," Dolan said. "The one clear fact is he was shot in the back."
Walgreens issued a statement in which it said the company "extended our deepest and most sincere condolences" to Hart's family, and noted that as a result of the shooting, "immediately terminated the security company."
"We are committed to providing a safe environment for our employees, patients and customers in the communities we serve," the statement continued.