Slain Calif. LEO’s widow, children sue DA over failing to keep convicted felon in prison
Officer Joseph Santana was killed by a felon with a lengthy criminal record who had a strike allegation revoked, violating California’s three strikes law
By Scott Schwebke
The Whittier Daily News, Calif.
EL MONTE, Calif. — The family of slain El Monte police Officer Joseph Santana has filed a wrongful death lawsuit against Los Angeles County District Attorney George Gascón, alleging his disregard for California’s “three-strikes” law enabled a convicted felon to commit the 2022 double homicide that also claimed the life of another officer.
The suit, filed Wednesday, May 3, in Los Angeles Superior Court by the officer’s wife, Sasha Santana, along with his three children and parents, also names the county Probation Department and Siesta Inn in East Los Angeles as defendants. It seeks unspecified monetary damages.
“Gascón and the probation department need to be held accountable for their failures that resulted in Joseph’s death,” Santana’s family said in a statement. “No family should ever have to endure the pain we’ve been through since the tragic passing of our loving son, father and husband.”
On June 14, 2022, Santana, 31, and El Monte police Cpl. Michael Paredes, 42, responded to a report of a stabbing at the Siesta Inn.
Santana and Paredes rescued a victim from one of the motel’s rooms before both were shot and killed, allegedly by 35-year-old Justin Flores of Whittier, a documented gang member with a lengthy criminal record. Flores died after shooting himself with Paredes’ service weapon.
Gascón’s “ill-advised policies” and a probation officer’s inaction played a major role in the deaths of Santana and Paredes, David Ring, an attorney for Santana’s family, said Thursday.
“Two young police officers were killed, in part, because Los Angeles County’s Probation Department sat on its hands and failed to yank a dangerous felon off the streets after he blatantly violated the terms of his probation,” Ring said.
Paredes’ family is expected to file a similar lawsuit this week against Gascón and the Probation Department, said the attorney, who added that both sets of plaintiffs will work together to bring about change.
The District Attorney’s Office declined to comment on the lawsuit because it has not reviewed the complaint.
“As we’ve previously stated, our hearts go out to the family of Officer Santana,” the office said in a statement. “His tragic murder is a devastating loss to his family, friends, and the community he bravely served. We have nothing but empathy for those who are suffering.”
The Los Angeles County Probation Department declined to comment, and officials with the Siesta Inn could not be reached for comment regarding the suit.
The complaint outlines failures by Gascón and the Probation Department that allegedly contributed to the killings.
Flores was arrested for being a felon in possession of a gun and placed on probation as part of a plea deal in early 2021, according to the lawsuit.
A prosecutor handling Flores’ criminal case acknowledged that Gascón instructed him to revoke a strike allegation against Flores as part of a special directive issued by the district attorney, the complaint says.
“Gascón’s special directive directly violated California’s three strikes law,” the suit states. “Had Gascón followed the law, Flores would have served prison time for his felony gun possession conviction. He would not have been out on the streets the night he killed Officer Santana and Sgt. Paredes,” who was posthumously promoted to sergeant.
California’s three-strikes law was enacted by voters in 1994 to add prison time to the terms of previously convicted felons. The law requires that defendants convicted of any felony, with two or more previous felony strikes, be sentenced to a mandated prison term of 25 years to life.
Gascón ‘must comply with the law’
In June 2022, California’s Second District Court of Appeal affirmed a lower court ruling that Gascón cannot prohibit prosecutors from seeking sentencing enhancements for defendants under the three-strikes law,
“The district attorney overstates his authority,” the appellate court said. “He is an elected official who must comply with the law, not a sovereign with absolute, unreviewable discretion.”
Still, the appellate court acknowledged, the state Constitution and Supreme Court vest district attorneys with sole authority to determine whom to charge, what charges to file and pursue, and what punishment to seek.
Gascon has appealed the ruling to the California Supreme Court, which has not rendered a decision.
Probation policies not followed
The lawsuit filed by Santana’s family alleges a probation officer saw Flores only once from March 2021 to June 2022 despite a Los Angeles County policy requiring a monthly check-in with all probationers.
Additionally, the probation officer never filed a “desertion report” documenting Flores’ failure to check in. That would have revoked his probation and resulted in his immediate incarceration.
According to the complaint, Flores’ probation officer completed a phone check-in with him on June 2, 2022, after learning he was in possession of a gun, which he was prohibited from having, and had beaten a woman.
The probation officer allegedly directed Flores to attend an in-person meeting on June 6, but Flores didn’t show up and police were not notified. Then, on June 13 — the day before Santana and Paredes were shot to death — the officer filed for revocation of Flores’ probation.
“Despite this, and in complete disregard for the safety of the public, Flores was not taken into custody,” the suit states. “Instead, Flores continued to commit crimes on the street, including stabbing or attempting to stab a woman at the Siesta Inn, which prompted a call for service to the El Monte Police Department. Officer Santana and Sergeant Paredes responded to this call and were shot and killed by Flores.”
The slayings were entirely preventable if Gascón had performed his duties, said Eric Siddall, vice president of the Association of Deputy District Attorneys, a union representing more than 800 Los Angeles County prosecutors that is frequently at odds with the D.A.
“Under California law, Flores should have been in a state prison cell on the day he murdered El Monte Police Officers Santana and Paredes,” he said. “Instead, because of George Gascón’s policies, he was in a hotel room beating his girlfriend until the two officers responded to the call for help.
“Traditionally, prosecutors were the voice of victims in the courtroom. Now the chief prosecutor of Los Angeles County is being sued by victims because he abandoned his role as their protector and violated his duty to uphold the law.”
(c)2023 The Whittier Daily News, Calif.
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