On Thursday, the L.A. County District Attorney's Office charged Alexander Tor McDonald with murder, attempted murder, and torture. The 27-year-old is accused of holding three people hostage with a knife in his West Hollywood apartment. He has pleaded not-guilty.
But the person who died was one of the hostages who was mistakenly shot by L.A. County sheriff's deputies.
The murder charge stems from California's felony murder rule, which allows prosecutors to charge a defendant with murder when a death occurs during the commission of another felony. Prosecutors can also argue for murder charges if a defendant creates a situation so reckless as to cause murder. A classic example: If a clerk is killed during a robbery, then all of the co-defendants can be charged with murder, even if none of the others pulled the trigger.
It's not uncommon for prosecutors to charge a defendant with the murder of an innocent person who died at the hands of law enforcement, said Loyola Law Professor Stanley Goldman. However, the facts of the case – at least what's publicly known at this time – may present some difficulties for prosecutors, Goldman said.
The incident happened Monday at about 9:30 p.m.
Three men were hanging out in a West Hollywood apartment when the roommate of one of the men – McDonald – attacked the three with a knife and held them hostage at knife point, according to the L.A. County Sheriff's Department.
Deputies were told by other residents in the building that two people lived in the apartment, and that the suspect was wearing a black shirt. They tried to make contact with the men inside the apartment, but no one answered.
Soon after, the apartment door swung open, and two men ran out, according to the sheriff's department. The first was "covered in blood and bleeding profusely from the neck," according to the sheriff's department.
A second man, who deputies said matched the attacker's description followed and was "lunging" at the back of the fleeing victim.
"Both ran directly at the deputies," according to the sheriff's department.
The deputies opened fire, striking both men, and killing the second, 30-year-old John Winkler. Only later did they realize that both were victims.
In a press conference Thursday, Interim Sheriff John Scott told reporters the incident was "a police officer's greatest nightmare."
He said the deputies were removed from patrol, but will likely return to duty next week.
Goldman, the law professor, said there have been similar incidents in the past.
In a famous 1986 case in Beverly Hills, Steven Livaditis robbed the Van Cleef jewelry store, taking hostages when police arrived.
Livaditis killed two people inside the store. A third person, the store manager, was shot and killed by a sheriff’s deputy who mistook him for the robber.
Livaditis was convicted of murder in all three deaths.
In a more recent case in Northern California, Hayward police who were trying to stop an alleged drunk driver shot and killed his passenger when he drove towards them. (They later said the deceased passenger was an innocent victim.)
That man faces felony murder charges in his passenger’s death. The case has not gone to trial.
Goldman said the trouble in the West Hollywood case stems not so much from the law enforcement connection to the death, but from the underlying crime.
In California, “you can’t use assault-based felonies as the basis for felony murder,” Goldman said. Kidnapping is included among those crimes. However, a felony murder charge can be used with the crime of torture, which McDonald is also charged with.
That might be enough for a charge to stick, but there’s also a "foreseeability factor," Goldman said.
“Would any reasonable person have foreseen that the police would shoot somebody in these circumstances?” Goldman said. “You start a robbery and you fire a gun. I think it’s pretty reasonably foreseeable the police are going to show up and start shooting. In this case, I don’t know.”
It’s possible the murder charge will hold, but it's not a slam dunk for prosecutors, Goldman said.