Six months ago, it appeared that the decision on whether to prosecute Deputy Erick Gelhaus in the killing of 13-year-old Andy Lopez would be a seminal issue in this year’s race for Sonoma County district attorney.
But it hasn’t turned out that way, primarily because the incumbent, Jill Ravitch, who is being challenged by Deputy District Attorney Victoria Shanahan in Tuesday’s primary, has yet to announce her decision.
The department’s guideline is to review law enforcement investigations of officer-involved shootings, conduct additional investigations and announce a decision within 90 days. As of today, it has been four months since the district attorney received the report on the Lopez shooting from the Santa Rosa and Petaluma police departments.
Granted, Ravitch has been on the hot spot since day one, not just on whether to pursue criminal charges. State a position too quickly, and she opens herself up to criticism of not being thorough. Go too slowly, and she’s vulnerable to accusations of being too political. This is particularly true if the decision is made after Tuesday’s election, which now appears inevitable.
“The truth of the matter is we are still working on the case,” Ravitch told me Friday when I called to ask her about it. She was adamant that the reason for the delay “is in no way connected to this election.”
As evidence, Ravitch said her office had received new information as recently as Thursday from an expert who was contacted as part of the investigation. “As a result, this expert produced a statement that was new to us,” she said.
In fact, DA investigators, with the assistance of someone from the FBI, were out at the location of the shooting on Friday doing further analysis, according to Ravitch and lead investigator Brian Davis.
“It’s an investigation that continues,” she said.
She said she shares the public interest in seeing a resolution. “But I remind you, and I remind your readers, that this is not an unusually long period of time for an investigation of this nature,” she said.
An analysis her office released Jan. 30 showed that local prosecutors had exceeded the 90-day turnaround guideline in 23 out of the 30 police shootings, jail deaths and other officer-involved fatalities investigated since 2005. Since her election four years ago, Ravitch has ruled on five such deaths. Three of those reviews took 90 days or less. The average has been about four months. One review took more than seven months.
By comparison, in the case of 16-year-old Jeremiah Chaas of Sebastopol, who died in a violent confrontation with two Sonoma County sheriff’s deputies in 2007, the District Attorney’s Office reviewed the case for nearly eight months before the decision not to prosecute was announced.
“I’m not going to be swayed by politics,” Ravitch said.
If she decides not to file criminal charges, she said, she will release an “extensive statement to the public” explaining why she reached that decision<NO1><NO>. In that event, “there will be a presentation of the evidence. .<TH>.<TH>. I’m going to be very clear about what I considered.”
But it appears that may yet be a while.
— Paul Gullixson