A Los Angeles County sheriff's deputy who shot and killed an unarmed motorist in Norwalk in 2016 was charged Tuesday with voluntary manslaughter, officials announced. The case marks the first on-duty law enforcement officer prosecution for the shooting of an unarmed civilian in nearly two decades, the L.A. Times reported.
Luke Liu, 40, also faced a special allegation that he personally and intentionally discharged a firearm, according to the L.A. County District Attorney's Office. He could face up to 21 years in state prison if convicted as charged.
He pleaded not guilty in court, where bail was set at $1.1 million. His lawyer said his client planned to post bail.
Fellow deputies packed the courtroom Tuesday to show their support for Liu.
The officer was patrolling the 10900 block of Alondra Boulevard on Feb. 24, 2016, when he saw a vehicle he suspected to be stolen, prosecutors said.
Liu pulled up behind the vehicle at a gas station and walked to the driver's side of the car then to the back, the District Attorney's Office said. When he returned to the front, 26-year-old Francisco Garcia started driving away at about 5 mph, prosecutors said.
"Liu then allegedly drew his service weapon, ran alongside the car and fired seven shots at Garcia, who was struck four times and killed," a statement from the District Attorney's Office said.
According to the L.A. Times, Liu said in a Sheriff's Department report that he thought Garcia was grabbing a firearm when the civilian reached into the backseat. The report said the driver then struck Liu in his knees.
Liu's attorney, Michael Schwartz, contended that Garcia drove away and clipped the officer when ordered to put his hands on the wheel, the L.A. Times reported. Liu believed his life and others were threatened, the lawyer added.
The incident, from the time Liu approached Garcia to the shooting, happened in about 20 seconds, prosecutors said.
Liu began CPR on Garcia when the vehicle stopped, Lt. Eddie Hernandez told the L.A. Times in 2016. Paramedics who responded to the scene transported the 26-year-old to the hospital, where he was declared dead.
Several people saw the incident, which was recorded partly on video, officials said.
"We believe the officer's use of deadly force was unjustified and unreasonable under the circumstances," District Attorney Jackie Lacey said.
Humberto Guizar, the attorney representing Garcia's family, called the manslaughter charge "very encouraging."
"For 30 years I have been handling cases like this and I've seen even more egregious cases that are never prosecuted," Guizar said.
When Garcia's mother heard Tuesday's news, "she was extremely distraught and crying because it brought back the past," Guizar said.
In April, L.A. County paid Garcia's family $1.75 million to settle a wrongful death suit they filed claiming Liu opened fire without warning, the Times reported.
According to the Sheriff's Department, Liu was placed on administrative leave from his post at the Cerritos Sheriff's Station on Monday pending the outcome of the investigation. The agency said he has been with the department for more than 10 years.
The department said the case was presented to the District Attorney's Office on Jan. 31, 2017, and that sheriff's homicide investigators have been working with prosecutors.
"The LASD has complete confidence in the criminal justice system and the public we serve," the agency said after the District Attorney's announcement of the charge. "The facts will be presented, and the ultimate outcome of the case will be determined in a court of law."
Liu was booked at 11:23 a.m. and released at 12:19 p.m., inmate records show. He was scheduled to return to court on Jan. 31.