A Los Angeles police officer will not face criminal prosecution for the fatal shooting of a man holding what turned out to be a phone, state investigators determined.
The report released Feb. 8 by the California Justice Department examines the confrontation on July 26, 2021, between police and Samuel Soto. A state law requires such an investigation of any shooting in which a law enforcement officer kills a person who is not carrying a deadly weapon.
The report’s description of the encounter with the 53-year-old Soto describes a chaotic scene in which communication among the four officers and Soto may have been hindered by the noise of a police helicopter overhead.
The first two officers — Eduardo Martinez and Ruben Mejia — arrived at 8:49 p.m. at a residential/commercial block in the Pico-Union neighborhood, west of downtown Los Angeles, responding to a 911 call from a Texas police officer who was on a family vacation. The Texan said he had pulled over to offer help to a man who was bleeding from the neck, and then noticed the man was holding a knife.
When Martinez and Mejia arrived, the Texas man was pointing a handgun at Soto — who then turned and ran toward the LAPD officers with a knife in his hand, the report said. Martinez fired two shots that missed and a third that struck Soto in the abdomen.
Soto fell to the street and dropped the knife, which Martinez kicked out of his reach, but he was on his feet when officers David Voci and Christian Garton arrived less than a minute after the shooting in response to a call for backup.
On video from their body-worn cameras, “Officer Mejia can be heard stating, ‘He doesn’t have the knife.’ Officer Voci did not acknowledge or react to Officer Mejia’s statement,” the report says.
Both Mejia and Garton later mentioned the noise from a police helicopter “made communication difficult and the scene more chaotic.”
All four officers had their guns trained on Soto when he put his hand, holding “an unknown black object,” behind his back and walked toward Voci. When he was within 7 feet, Voci fired three times, striking Soto in the chest, arm and leg. Soto fell, and Voci then asked the other officers, “Does he still have the knife?”
The shooting occurred 12 seconds after Voci and Garton arrived, the report’s timeline says. The object Soto was holding was found to be a mobile phone.
Soto was hospitalized until Nov. 2, when he died of septic shock from his infected gunshot wounds.
A blood test found evidence of intoxicants including alcohol and amphetamines in Soto’s system at the time he was shot. His sister told investigators that when she saw him about two hours before the shooting, he did not appear drunk or otherwise impaired — but she said he had been evicted from his apartment the previous day after allegedly slamming doors while “drunk or high.”
The four officers who were at the shooting scene declined to give voluntary statements to investigators. Mejia and Garton, who did not fire their weapons, were compelled to give witness statements.
In its conclusion, the report said there was “insufficient evidence to support a criminal prosecution” of either Martinez or Voci.
Specifically, it said, “the evidence supports that Officer Martinez acted in lawful self-defense and defense of others” and “the evidence supports the inference that Officer Voci reasonably, though mistakenly, believed Mr. Soto was armed with a knife and Mr. Soto posed an imminent threat to his life.”
The report is the fifth issued by the state Justice Department under Assembly Bill 1506, which took effect July 1, 2021. At this point, there are 48 fatal shootings for which a report has not been issued.
The four previous reports also determined that no criminal charges against officers were warranted. Three of those deaths were of men in confrontations with law enforcement officers. The other was a man who was struck by a stray bullet while sitting in a vehicle in his driveway, 60 yards from where police were attempting to subdue a suspect.