The man who shot and killed two El Monte police officers on Tuesday could have faced much more prison time when he was last charged with a crime. But one of Dist. Attorney George Gascón’s most criticized policies likely led to a lower sentence, according to documents reviewed by The Times.
Justin Flores, 35, who was also killed in Tuesday’s confrontation,
was charged with being a felon in possession of a firearm and methamphetamine when he was arrested by Los Angeles County Sheriff’s deputies in 2020.
Flores had been convicted of robbery in 2011. Robberies are strike crimes, making suspects charged with later crimes eligible for harsher sentences. Flores’ previous conviction means he had a punch against him when he was indicted in 2020.
But the prosecutor assigned to the case, Deputy Dist. Attorney Larry Holcomb, said he had to overturn the strike charge. after Gascón took office, according to a despotism report reviewed by The Times. That’s because Gascón had issued a “special directive” prohibiting prosecutors from filing strike complaints on their first day in office.
Gascón’s policy on strikes was later deemed illegal by a Los Angeles County Superior Court judge, after the union representing grassroots prosecutors filed a lawsuit, seeking an injunction. In February 2021, Judge James Chalfant ruled that Gascon’s policy violated California’s “three strikes” law, which requires prosecutors to file notice pleas each time a defendant has a prior conviction for a felony or violent crime. .
An appellate judge upheld Chalfant’s ruling earlier this year.
Flores pleaded no contest to being a felon in possession of a firearm in 2021, and prosecutors have agreed to drop all other charges, records show. Although the firearm conviction alone could have sent him to prison for up to three years, by pleading no contest, Flores was sentenced to two years probation and 20 days in jail.
There is no guarantee that Flores would still have been in jail Tuesday, when he shot and killed the El Monte police corporal. Michael Paredes and Officer Joseph Santana while responding to a reported stabbing at the Siesta Inn. But dropping the strike charge certainly cost prosecutors leverage in negotiating a plea, according to criminal justice experts.
Laurie Levenson, a criminal law professor at Loyola Law School, said the general policy of ignoring strike complaints would always lead to problems.
“If you’re going to implement blanket policy, you’re always in danger of having a Willie Horton moment,” he said, “where that decision applied to a case results in a horrible outcome.”
Horton was convicted of first-degree murder in Massachusetts and sentenced to life in prison without parole. He escaped while on a weekend leave show in 1986, then brutally raped a woman and assaulted her boyfriend. The Horton case was used in an infamous attack ad against then-Massachusetts Governor Michael Dukakis, who was running for president against George HW Bush.
Gascon has moved of those general policies in recent months. Prosecutors can now seek committee approval to try minors as adults or pursue special-circumstance charges in murder cases, tactics Gascón had initially banned when he took office.
At least two of these cases are being reviewed by committees. While some have said Gascón backed down due to outside criticism and the growing threat of retirement, he has insisted that he began considering exceptions to some of his policies months ago.
Dmitry Gorin, a former deputy district attorney and defense attorney, said “the dismissal of a previous strike offense by the district attorney’s office against a gang member with a criminal record charged with drug sales and possession of a loaded gun is unusual. ”.
“The typical pre-Gascón offer would be in the range of 32 months in state prison,” he added.
Two law enforcement sources also told The Times that the disposition report, which confirmed that prosecutors overturned the strike against Flores, was placed on “lockdown” on Wednesday. Anyone who wanted to review the document had to seek permission from senior staff at the district attorney’s office, according to the sources, who spoke on condition of anonymity for fear of reprisal.
In an email to The Times, a spokesman for the district attorney’s office, Ricardo Santiago, said “experienced managers” had reviewed the case and determined that the offer given to Flores was consistent with those offered by previous administrations. Santiago also said that the prosecutors assigned to the case could have challenged Gascón’s policy if they had believed that the Flores case was extraordinary.
“The sentencing directive is presumptive. We authorize the DDA to rebut that presumption if they believe extraordinary circumstances exist,” Santiago wrote. “Special Directive 20-08 states that ‘if the offense charged is eligible for parole, parole will be the presumptive offer absent extraordinary circumstances warranting incarceration.’ No such request was made in this case.”
But Deputy Dist. Attorney Martin Bean, who oversaw the case and signed a disposition, said in an email to The Times that “Special Directive 20-08, which was issued at the time the District Attorney was sworn in, it required all previous strikes to be dismissed. The directive did not allow exceptions.”
Santiago also confirmed that the disposition report was blocked, a necessary precaution taken as the office has faced “an unprecedented number of leaks” according to prosecutors. They have staged an open revolt against Gascón.
“This conduct is not only unethical, in many cases it is illegal,” Santiago said of the leaks. “We have an ethical and legal obligation to prevent leaks whenever possible. In high-profile cases we do this as a precaution, and the fact that an unknown person attempted to review sensitive information and received that message speaks to the need for the procedure.”
Disposition reports are not public documents.
Flores’ previous strike stemmed from a 2011 break-in at his grandparents’ home. He stole a television and was high on drugs at the time, according to another law enforcement source, who said most of Flores’ criminal record consisted of nonviolent misdemeanors motivated by his drug addiction problems. That source spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to speak to the press.
Flores’ criminal history has been a repeated source of scrutiny this week. The Los Angeles County Probation Department has also been criticized. after The Times reported that Flores’ girlfriend accused him of assault last week.
That accusation should have triggered a probation violation and resulted in Flores’ arrest, but probation officers never approached Flores, sources previously told The Times. A spokeswoman for the probation department said the matter was under investigation and declined to comment further.
Paredes and Santana were responding to a report of a stabbing Tuesday night and engaged in a gunfight with Flores. Both men were so seriously injured that officers took them in police vehicles to a hospital, where they died a short time later.
Three officers opened fire in the shooting and Flores was pronounced dead at the scene.