By Todd Wels
Triplicate staff writer
Two correctional officers who shot 17 inmates, killing one, during a Feb. 23 riot at Pelican Bay State Prison, will not face criminal prosecution.
In a report issued Wednesday, Del Norte County District Attorney Robert J. Drossel said the two officers, whose names are being withheld to maintain confidentiality, acted within the law and in the interest of protecting other inmates.
Firearm use was reasonable and necessary under the circumstances, Drossel said in a press release. To not take the action as indicated by the evidence would have clearly resulted in more critical injuries and the potential for death.
Leslie DiBenedetto of the California Prison Watch activist group disagreed, saying both the riots and the shootings were signs that Pelican Bay (staff) has lost control of the prison.
The riot began at 9:30 a.m., Feb. 23, when a large group of Hispanic prisoners assaulted a smaller group of black prisoners in the exercise yards of the prisons B Unit. In total, more than 200 prisoners participated in the riot.
Prison personnel initially used non-violent suppression methods, including pepper spray, rubber bullets and batons.
When those measures failed to quell the riot, the two guards opened fire from towers, injuring 16 inmates, and killing one 22-year-old Miguel Sanchez of South Gate.
Sanchez was shot once through the back of the head.
After sifting through 1,500 pages of evidence and photos, as well as viewing a videotape of the riot, Drossel determined that Sanchezs shooting constituted a justifiable homicide on the part of the officer who shot him.
Sanchez was in the act of stabbing a black inmate with a six-to-eight-inch homemade knife at the time he was shot, according to Drossel.
He said the other 16 inmates shot during the riot were also active participants in the riot, using deadly weapons on other inmates and intending to inflict great bodily injury or death on the other inmates.
That is a contention California Prison Focus disputes.
We are definitely not in any kind of agreement with that, DiBenedetto said. She said her organization has interviewed several prisoners who said they were shot by correctional officers, despite the fact that they did not participate in the fighting.
For the D.A. to say were not going to look into this any further we find that to be rather outrageous, she said.
DiBenedetto said Drossels findings were also suspect due to the history of shootings and alleged brutality on the part of correctional officers at Pelican Bay.
They (the D.A.s office) are either the puppet or the one thats being bullied, she said, regarding Drossels relationship with the prison and the CDC.
The prisons Public Information Officer, Lt. Ben Grundy disagreed, noting that Drossels determinations were made completely independently of the prison.
The information regarding the riot was provided to Drossel by the various agencies that investigated the prison. They included the prisons own security staff, the Del Norte County Sheriffs Department, and the CDCs Deadly Force Investigation Team all of which he praised for their completeness.
We are obviously pleased with the results of the investigation, Grundy said.
He added that the prison has maintained that the two officers acted in accordance with regulations all along.
Were under scrutiny here, Grundy said. There are some very, very stringent requirements for use of deadly force.
Will the exoneration of these two officers make it more likely that deadly force will be employed in the future?
No, I dont think so, Drossel said. Thats because I think they realize every case will be looked at on its own merit.
Grundy concurred with Drossel.
No, it will not make it more likely, he said. We dont like to have to use deadly force.
The investigation of correctional officers use of deadly force was the first part of a two-part process, Drossel said.
In the coming weeks, he will decide whether to prosecute inmates for starting and participating in the riot.
He added that some inmates could even be charged with the murder of Miguel Sanchez, having generated the events that led up to his shooting.