LOS ANGELES – An autopsy report released on a 25-year-old black man killed in a confrontation with Los Angeles police appears to affirm initial statements by officers about the struggle that led to the close-range shooting, police said.
Ezell Ford was shot three times in his right side, right arm and back, according to the report that also says a muzzle imprint was found around the back wound and that Ford had abrasions to his left hand, forearm and elbow.
The report was disclosed Monday after police initially ordered the Los Angeles County medical examiner’s office to withhold the results for months to avoid tainting potential witness statements.
Ford was unarmed when police confronted him Aug. 11 on a street near his home. Police said officers tried to speak to him but got into a struggle with Ford and shot him when he tried to grab an officer’s gun.
Police Chief Charlie Beck told a news conference the investigation was far from over. Stressing he was not drawing conclusions, Beck said, “There is nothing in the coroner’s report that is inconsistent with the statements given to us by the officers.”
Beck said the officers reported that Ford attracted their attention with suspicious actions then knocked one officer to the ground.
Ford was atop the officer and grappling for the officer’s holstered weapon when his partner fired two shots and the fallen officer pulled a backup gun and shot Ford in the back, according to an account read by Beck on Monday.
Beck said officers told investigators it was a violent struggle in which “the (downed) officer drew his backup gun and reached over Mr. Ford’s back and shot Mr. Ford in very close proximity – possibly, probably the cause of the muzzle imprint mentioned in the coroner’s report.”
He said the muzzle imprint was consistent with the type of weapon used by the officer, and that the other weapon was a semi-automatic pistol that probably wouldn’t leave the same kind of mark.
The imprint indicated Ford was shot either right up against his skin or very close to his skin, said Richard Lichten, a retired law enforcement lieutenant and a police practices expert. He said the abrasions only indicated Ford had sustained friction wounds at some point.
Additional details such as injuries to the officer involved in the scuffle would provide more details, Lichten said.
“The autopsy report is only one piece of the puzzle, only one piece, and no one should render a solid opinion based only on an autopsy report,” Lichten said.
He said many other types of evidence from interviews, officer statements, measurements, photographs, gunshot residue and details about the bullet will also be analyzed during the investigation.
The LAPD previously identified the two gang officers involved as Sharlton Wampler and Antonio Villegas.
The chief said it would be several months before the investigation was completed and presented to the civilian Police Commission to determine if it was within department policy. Meanwhile, the officers remain on non-field duties.
The commission will receive separate recommendations from Beck and the department’s independent inspector general. The county district attorney’s office will separately determine if the shooting was justified or if charges should be filed.
Beck said the department has found no witnesses who saw the confrontation between Ford and the officers. He appealed for any possible witnesses to come forward.
Steve Lerman, an attorney for Ford’s parents, said the autopsy report was “horrifying” and supported the family’s claim that the shooting was “unjustified, illegal and unconstitutional.” He said the family read the report together and that Ford’s parents have “gone into seclusion.”
“They’re distraught, they’re hysterical with grief and anger,” Lerman said. “It essentially filled in their worst nightmare that this happened like this, more like an execution than a confrontation.”
Ford’s parents have filed a federal civil rights lawsuit and $75 million claim against the city alleging the two gang officers knew Ford from the neighborhood and were aware he had mental problems. Though Beck said he had no indications thus far that the officers involved knew anything about Ford’s mental condition.
Lerman said an expert is reconstructing the incident along with witness statements from people who directly saw what happened, and he was confident the family would prevail in court.
“It’s simple to me that they pounced upon an unarmed defenseless man they knew to be mentally challenged and ended up shooting him in the back and killing him, that’s the nutshell,” Lerman said.
Lerman has said his investigator found witnesses to support his case, but he refused to divulge details. Beck said police tried to reach witnesses listed by the family’s legal staff but were unable to successfully speak to any.
The suit also claimed that the city, LAPD and 10 unnamed superiors or other officers were part of a culture that tolerated civil rights violations, including racial profiling and excessive force against blacks.
Tyler Izen, president of the Los Angeles Police Protective League, said in a statement that the autopsy presented only “one set of facts among many hundreds being collected and assessed in the ongoing investigation.”
“LAPD officers are put directly in harm’s way every day as they face complex situations, unthinkable dangers and split-second decisions while protecting the residents of Los Angeles,” Izen said. “No officer goes to work with the intent of using force, much less deadly force, but force may become necessary.”