It’s not surprising that the Monterey County District Attorney’s Office didn’t file criminal charges against Salinas police officers in the Maria Irma De La Torre case. The local D.A.’s Office has never charged a law enforcement officer for shooting or killing someone, and the death of De La Torre, who was 45 and epileptic, is no different. Except in this case it was a silver finger-sized crochet hook that turned a medical call into a fatality.
Distraught over the death of her father, De La Torre was suffering from a seizure when officers Steve Mattocks and Robert Balaoro responded to 911 calls on July 13, 2008. (She was hospitalized two nights before the shooting.) De La Torre locked herself in a van and officers saw her stabbing her neck with what they described as a safety pin.
According to the officers’ account, De La Torre moved aggressively toward Balaoro and raised what they thought was a knife or an ice pick. Balaoro attempted to tase her; in a split-second decision, Mattocks shot her twice in the back.
The D.A.’s investigation, which began in November, provides murky details. Poor lighting accompanied the 3am incident, and every witness saw something slightly different. Only one witness, the closest to the scene, corroborated the officers’ story, while De La Torre’s husband, who was standing roughly 70 feet away, didn’t see a weapon or an attack.
The officers’ description led the D.A.’s office to conclude it wouldn’t be able to prove to a jury – beyond a reasonable doubt – that the officers didn’t act in self-defense, or, in Mattock’s case, the defense of his partner. “The evidence suggests very strongly that the officer who fired the shots was acting under an honest and reasonable belief to need to defend his partner,” says Terry Spitz, chief assistant district attorney.
In an April 14 press conference, District Attorney Dean Flippo emphasized that the ill woman’s death was tragic. “You cannot blame Ms. De La Torre,” Flippo said. “Simply because we are not filing charges… we do not ascribe any blame to her actions which apparently were the result of her illness.”
Michael Haddad, an Oakland attorney representing De La Torre’s mother in a wrongful death lawsuit, says the D.A. shouldn’t take the officers’ word for what happened. “In a situation like this where the victim was dead, you can’t just take the officers’ statements at face value because the victim can’t speak for herself,” he says.
The D.A.’s determination has no bearing on Haddad’s civil case, which he says is strong. “We are not going to bend over backwards to exonerate the officers,” he says.
Crescencio Padilla, a member of the League of the United American Citizens who has investigated previous officer-involved shootings, says he plans to request a criminal investigation by the state Attorney General’s Office.
The D.A. is also investigating whether Mattocks did anything criminal when he opened fire on an unarmed couple in February. Salinas cops pulled Adriana Velasquez and Julio Hernandez over because their SUV’s license plate light was out. In this case, while no one was injured, police also say Mattocks used lethal force to protect his partner.