Wednesday, August 8, 2001
Cooley’s Office Declines to Charge Officer in Mitchell Shooting
From Staff and Wire Service Reports
District Attorney Steve Cooley yesterday opted against filing criminal charges against a Los Angeles police officer for fatally shooting a mentally ill homeless woman, concluding that conflicting witness accounts leave little chance of getting a conviction.
In a 60-page report, Cooley’s office detailed conflicts among statements from 11 witnesses to the May 21, 1999 shooting of 55-year-old Margaret Mitchell by LAPD Officer Edward Larrigan. Larrigan shot and killed Mitchell after she allegedly charged at him with a screwdriver.
Larrigan and his partner had stopped the woman to determine whether her shopping cart was stolen from a grocery store.
“When the witnesses’ statements and testimony were analyzed, along with the physical and scientific evidence, a troubling picture emerged,” the report states.
Three witnesses “radically” changed their statements about the facts and their attitudes toward the LAPD, according to the report. Two other witnesses refused to be interviewed by the LAPD or the District Attorney’s Office, based, in part, on advice from attorney Leo Terrell, who the Mitchell family retained.
The report’s summary lay much of the blame for the confused state of the evidence on ex-District Attorney Gil Garcetti’s elimination of a special team to investigate officer-involved shootings.
“The District Attorney’s ‘Rollout’ program was not in effect in 1999, having been eliminated in September 1995 by the District Attorney in office at that time,” the summary stated.
Cooley restored the program when he took office, after having attacked Garcetti during their campaign last year for eliminating it in a budget move.
“Under the program, which was reinstated seven months after Mitchell was killed, a Deputy District Attorney and a Senior District Attorney Investigator respond to the scene of officer-involved shootings to conduct a separate investigation of the incident” by immediately interviewing witnesses at the scene, the summary said. “This provides a fresh and unhampered assessment of a witness’s perceptive abilities and credibility.”
The killing of Mitchell sparked an outcry against the LAPD and refocused attention on department reforms that were promised, but not implemented, after the Christopher Commission’s report on the department in 1992.
An internal LAPD report found the shooting was “in policy” for such situations. But the Police Commission, on a 3-2 vote, disagreed.
The commission launched an effort to review how the department handles mentally ill suspects. But by then, the entire department had come under scrutiny because of allegations of perjury and unwarranted shootings in the so-called Rampart scandal.
In addition to blaming the cancellation of the Rollout program, the District Attorney’s Office also faulted Terrell, who represented the Mitchell family in a lawsuit against the city.
Without mentioning Terrell by name, the report asserted that the lawsuit “encumbered” and “compromised” the investigation.
“It is regrettable that this office did not have the opportunity to make an unhindered inquiry of the witnesses at the earliest possible opportunity,” according to the report.
Terrell, who obtained a $975,000 settlement for the plaintiffs last December, called the report “an outrage.”
“Steve Cooley is a man of false promises,” Terrell said. “He campaigned using the blood of Margaret Mitchell. He gets into office and he does a 60-page whitewash.”
Terrell said witnesses he spoke with refused to be interviewed because the District Attorney’s Office wanted to meet with them without legal representation.
“They didn’t want any attorneys there to sit and listen,” he said.
Terrell also said he has six boxes of documents under a federal protective order sitting in his office that the District Attorney’s Office “never asked for.”
Cooley could not be reached for comment.
According to the report, the witnesses described three “conflicting factual scenarios:”
•Larrigan accidentally discharged his service revolver and shot Mitchell when he lost his balance and fell, or nearly fell, to the ground.
•Mitchell lunged toward Larrigan from several feet away, as if attempting to stab him with the screwdriver and was shot when Larrigan fired in self-defense.
•Larrigan, for no apparent reason and without provocation, shot Mitchell as she fled from him or when she turned back momentarily to look at him.
Thus “it cannot be proved beyond reasonable doubt that Larrigan did not act lawfully in self-defense and in the defense of others, or accidentally discharge his firearm,” according to the report.
The report states the “conflicting evidence cannot support a criminal prosecution.”
Larrigan and Officer Kathy Clark had stopped Mitchell near Fourth Street and La Brea Avenue to ask if the shopping cart she was pushing was stolen, according to police.
Several merchants in the area had complained about stolen shopping carts, and the officers had been told to be on the lookout for them.
The lawsuit alleged that when the bike patrol officers approached Mitchell she “yelled ‘no, no,’ and began running southbound on La Brea Avenue. She was running ahead of her shopping cart, pulling it behind her.”
Mitchell was at least 4 feet ahead of Larrigan when he shot her, according to the petitions.
The investigation into the shooting that followed involved the LAPD, the District Attorney’s Office, the FBI and the Los Angeles County Grand Jury.
LAPD Officer Jason Lee asserted late yesterday afternoon that his department had not been given a copy of the report and that he could not comment on it.
Copyright 2001, Metropolitan News Company