Newsmaker of the Week

Steve Cooley
Los Angeles County District Attorney

Interview by Leon Worden
Signal Senior Editor

Sunday, March 11, 2007
(Television interview conducted March 6, 2007)

Signal: Let's talk about Deputy David March. His killer, Armando Garcia, after five long years, pleaded guilty and was sentenced to life behind bars.

Cooley: It was four years, 10 months and one day from the day he killed Deputy Dave March until he was sentenced to life without the possibility of parole, which means he will die in a state prison.

Signal: You spent that time counting the hours.

Cooley: I sure have.

Signal: The nagging question is: If he wasn't subject to the death penalty, why would he plead guilty?

Cooley: I think at some point in time, he became a broken man. He looked at the evidence assembled by our office and the Sheriff's Department investigators, which included his admissions shortly after he arrived back in this country, and he realized enough is enough. And maybe, just maybe, it was something he did for the good of his own soul.

Signal: Tell us a bit about David March.

Cooley: David March was a very dedicated, enthusiastic deputy for the L.A. County Sheriff's Department, working alone in Temple City Station jurisdiction. He spotted an individual (who) committed a traffic violation, initiated a traffic stop, and shortly after that, there was a confrontation where Armando Garcia shot Deputy March once; he went down, and then he executed him on the streets of Irwindale. The assailant, Armando Garcia, fled to Mexico, beginning a four-year, 10-month, one-day odyssey until we achieved appropriate justice for the killer of Deputy David March.
    The case became a cause celebre because of the Mexican Supreme Court's decision of October 2001, which prohibited the extradition of their nationals to another country where that person might face life in prison, even with the possibility of parole.
    That battle went on for a long time, until November of 2005, and as a result of programs like this, talk radio, our Web site — — public outcry, resolutions, public anger, the Mexican Supreme Court reversed that decision and opened up the opportunity to seek extradition of those Mexican nationals who committed crimes in other countries, where they face life in prison.
    Garcia then went through his due process in Mexico; it lasted about a year, and then he was brought back earlier this year. Fifty-two days after he arrived in California, he was convicted by his own plea and sentenced to the maximum allowed by law.

Signal: Why was the charge second-degree murder and not first-degree murder?

Cooley: First-degree murder carries the elements of premeditation and deliberation, and then has other standards associated with it. It's the highest form of murder. The sentence for this particular crime, killing of a police officer, allows — even when it's second degree murder — that the special circumstance, the killing of a police officer, carries with it the sentence of life without the possibility of parole, which is the highest sentence that can be obtained other than the death penalty.
    Our attorneys evaluated the circumstances of this case (and) said that these charges do represent what occurred that day. The investigators also felt strongly this was a very appropriate and accurate plea, and then we also consulted, of course, with (David's parents) John and Barbara March and (widow) Teri March, and they were very pleased with this result.

Signal: And of course, it's of particular interest to us because he lived in Saugus and left a widow and stepdaughter behind.

Cooley: He was a son of Santa Clarita.

Signal: When he made the traffic stop, David ordered Armando Garcia to the back of this apparently stolen car, and Armando Garcia spun around and shot him once—

Cooley: I don't know if the car was actually stolen. That fact is not known to me.

Signal: From what we've been told, Armando Garcia shot David March and then started to walk away and then changed his mind. Garcia turned around, came back and shot David execution-style in the head.

Cooley: He definitely shot him execution-style in the head. There was a coup de grace shot after the initial shot that put the deputy down.

Signal: At that moment, when he stopped, turned around and decided to murder David March, was that not enough to show premeditation and go for first degree murder?

Cooley: Oh, theoretically you could argue that, but you don't need to, if you're getting the same sentence for a second-degree murder plea.
    Remember, the definition of premeditation and deliberation does require proof beyond a reasonable doubt that it was an act undertaken after a "mature and meaningful reflection" — that's the additional part of the definition of first-degree murder.
    But in this case, he's going to die in prison. He's going to die in prison after a plea of guilty. Which would not be appealable. Unassailable. There won't be a trial where something could go wrong. He's going to die in prison.

Signal: You don't have a bunch of people out there waving signs trying to Free Armando Garcia.

Cooley: No. And quite frankly, the way it's been structured and set up, we have every certainty he'll die in prison, whereas if he had gone through a trial, he might be subjected to years of appeals, and who knows what's going to happen? Sometimes things do go south on us. We've got the 9th Circuit here that governs this state. Who knows.
    This is unassailable, bullet-proof, not appealable. He's going to prison. He's going to die in a California state prison, which is a much better scenario than him floating around down in Mexico a free man.

Signal: Was there some kind of a deal between your office and the Mexican government — or anybody else — in terms of the extradition, that you would go for second degree murder?

Cooley: No. Not at all. There are no restrictions at all. However, the extradition treaty between Mexico and the United States of 1978 does contain a provision: Either country can refuse extradition if the person being extradited faces the death penalty. That's a right held by both countries pursuant to a lawful treaty between both countries.
    To assure extradition, you do have to acknowledge you will not seek that penalty. That's just something we have to live with, because of the extradition treaty that governs us all, under the laws of the United States and our Constitution.

Signal: You mentioned the pressure brought to bear by your office and others on the Mexican government to reverse their Supreme Court decision. But what ultimately compelled them to do so? Why did they listen to us? What did the Mexican government get out of it?

Cooley: The Supreme Court reversed its decision, I think, because it finally dawned on them — maybe because their own authorities were telling them this, the consul general from Los Angeles, their attorney general's people said: You know what? Your decision has basically created a magnet for very evil and bad people to come to our country, Mexico, and hide out, and they're going to do harm to our people.
    So they realized that they were creating a haven for murderers, the worst sort of human being, and their policy, their earlier decision, had created that scenario.
    I think — whatever their initial thought was of a principled stand according to their Constitution — the practicalities of creating that scenario dawned on them. And also I think maybe all the outcry of victims, next-of-kin victims, was such that they realized: This is an incredible injustice. This is just wrong.
    And so, denying good people, next-of-kin of good people, some form of justice, must have (had) an impact on them. And when you hear the March story, and the story of many other people — in print or on television or on radio, over and over and over again — it kind of seeped up, I think, and they realized: We've got to undo this policy, this decision.
    And they did, and we went to work. And we're starting to line these murderers up like cordwood.

Signal: You mentioned that the United States also has the right to refuse extradition if a U.S. citizen faces the death penalty abroad. So it's not just Mexico. That fact seems to have gotten lost. Are there lots of countries that won't extradite in that situation?

Cooley: That's actually a very common provision of almost all the treaties of extradition that the United States is engaged in with those countries where we do have an extradition treaty. It's a very common provision.

Signal: Are there other countries that won't extradite if somebody faces life imprisonment?

Cooley: Not that I know of.

Signal: So it was only Mexico during the period of 2001-2005.

Cooley: We did fear a movement, that it might spread to other South American countries, but I don't know if that actually occurred.

Signal: You said you're lining them up like cordwood — how many have you now apprehended?

Cooley: We have two right now who have been apprehended. One is a result of our Web site, Someone actually saw the case profiled, saw the individual selling condos or timeshares down in Cancun, called up our office and other agencies, and eventually we swooped in on him. His name is Daniel Perez.
    (There is another individual who) killed an 11-year-old boy in a gang crossfire incident. He's going to be here shortly. And we have others that we're targeting.

Signal: Are there other cop killers out there on the loose?

Cooley: Not from our jurisdiction.

Signal: Let's talk about the facts of the David March murder. We've only gotten bits and pieces over these four years, 10 months and a day — presumably because you thought you would need to use the facts at trial. Now, your office and the Sheriff's Department knew pretty darned quickly that the killer was Armando Garcia. How did you identify him?

Cooley: I don't want to get into all of the investigative aspects, but it was obviously the vehicle. There were other indications—

Signal: But it wasn't his car—

Cooley: No, but there were indications from the car and people (who) had lent him the car. They did track him to his source of employment, which was being a methamphetamine dealer. People who knew about him utilizing that car implicated him. There were some witnesses at the scene. Maybe the IDs weren't totally positive because of where they were positioned, but enough came together that we were able to issue a warrant for his arrest. And it was (under) scrutiny because it went through the State Department for a provisional international warrant and satisfied the Mexican authorities.
    However, I must commend the Sheriff's Department homicide investigators. There were some loose ends that they wanted to clear up, particularly to assure that his identity was not an issue, and shortly after Garcia got back here on our soil, he was allowed to — within the confines of (his) Miranda rights — do a walk-through and describe for the deputies, the investigators of the Sheriff's Department, what occurred, at least from his standpoint, his assertions.

Signal: Garcia went out with deputies to the crime scene—

Cooley: After reviewing the matter with my deputies from our Crimes Against Peace Officers section. They had a strategy pretty well worked out when they had a sense (Garcia's extradition) was getting close. They'd been talking about this for months: How are we going to handle him? How are we going to get him back here? How are we going to get additional evidence, if at all possible, to strengthen our case?
    And it obviously worked because Garcia threw the towel in.

Signal: I still don't understand what's in it for him to do that.

Cooley: Sometimes — and this may be speculation on my part, but when you sort of know the evidence against you, maybe he wanted to make peace with his own soul. And confession is good for the soul.

Signal: Do you know what he was doing while he was home free in Mexico?

Cooley: In a vague sort of way. He was living as sort of an outlaw in a very inaccessible area, in Michoacan, sort of hiding out, being on the alert for police. He was traveling around, visiting relatives; he worked in a market as a clerk at one point in time; and I think that it was probably some stage when he went down there that he was actively engaged with the criminal activities of a Mexican cartel.

Signal: Was there ever a time, while he was in Mexico, when you didn't know exactly where he was?

Cooley: Oh, yeah. Most of the time.
    We had general ideas, occasionally, but when he was actually apprehended by the Mexican authorities, no one knew he was (where he was) at that time. That was one of many locations where surveillance was being conducted, in the off-chance he might show up. And he did.

Signal: Did you send people down there, under the radar, to keep an eye on him?

Cooley: Well, we don't talk about investigative techniques, but I will tell you that the U.S. Marshal Service has proven to me, over and over again, they are an incredibly skilled, resourceful law enforcement agency that has mastered this craft. I think we're blessed to have them as an ally when someone does get across the border and decides to evade justice. They're good. They're very good.

Signal: Now, Garcia had hopped the border more than once—

Cooley: Oh, yes. He'd been deported I think at least three times — I've read four times, but I know three times he was deported.

Signal: So what's wrong with the federal government, in the way it handles things?

Cooley: How long is this show? I can go on and on about the failure of federal government (to) protect our borders and allow cartels — maybe not intentionally, but because of their lax practices — allow cartels to import huge quantities of narcotics in our country; allow criminals to go back and forth. David March was a victim in a very real sense of a failed immigration policy.

Signal: Do you blame the federal government?

Cooley: Well, I blame the killer, for starters. But the circumstances that allowed that killer to be here — I think the federal government bears serious responsibility.
    I'll give you a clear example. There's a law, a federal law, that says it is a felony to re-enter the United States after having been deported or excluded. OK? That law is not being enforced, at least in the Central District of California, by the U.S. Attorney's Office, except maybe in a handful of cases. They've not been thorough (or) aggressive.
    I think that it goes all the way to our current attorney general back in Washington, our former attorney general, maybe attorney generals before him, who have not given resources to local U.S. Attorney's offices to bring felonious re-entry prosecutions.
    These are very simple cases. Why not dedicate the prosecutors and orient INS and Homeland Security to identifying those individuals who are gang members or criminals, who are here illegally, who've been deported one or more times, and prosecute them for felonious re-entry? And then, you want it to wait until they've executed David March? Or down in Long Beach, that was a person who was three times excluded from this country who shot up two Long Beach police officers, almost killing both of them. That person had been excluded three times. What's wrong with this picture?

Signal: Do you think it's a matter of money or willpower?

Cooley: I think it's a lack of priority, lack of willpower, I don't know. I'd get Alberto Gonzales down here and ask him on your show.
    I've made this statement before, publicly, and I will continue to say it: There's something wrong when you have a law on the books that's easy to enforce, and you're just not enforcing it. If a local district attorney did that, he'd be voted out of office.

Signal: Is there anything you can do, anything the Sheriff can do, anything the state government can do, when these people do come back again and again and are apprehended? Can you plant a microchip in their heads or something so that a buzzer goes off at the border?

Cooley: When they're deported or excluded, they should be thoroughly identified, fingerprints, every other form of identification. There should be databases made of that. And taking a DNA sample. Identify the person who's in this country illegally, has now been deported, so when they come back, you can identify them without having to resort to, "What's your name?"
    I think that that's the burden the federal government should undertake, just as a matter of an investigative strategy. And then you need the follow-through. They should assign some federal prosecutors to prosecute this law, which is easy to prosecute, and do it vigorously, particularly as it relates to the person here in this country illegally who is committing crimes. Start with those guys. That's a good place to start. And there's plenty of them out there. You've got transnational gangs, people from other Central American countries — not just Mexico — Central American countries who are wreaking havoc in our country, deported, come back, they should be prosecuted.
    You'd have a lot less crime, at least committed by that element of our gang subculture here in Los Angeles County and elsewhere.

Signal: You've mentioned two others you've been able to get back from Mexico—

Cooley: Well, they're pending. One is about a month away. We're tracking their appeal. They get two levels of appeal, unless it goes to the Supreme Court, which it won't. That's sort of the end of the process, and we expect each of them to come back within the next month or so.

Signal: How many are on the loose in Mexico?

Cooley: We figure 200 to 300 out of Los Angeles County, over a historical time period, and obviously several hundred throughout the state, and maybe 2,000 or 3,000 from the border states—

Signal: Felons who would face capital punishment in the U.S.?

Cooley: No, we're (not) talking about capital punishment, we're talking about people who've committed a murder in our county or state or our country who have fled to Mexico.
    And I will tell you that because of our efforts, other counties are also now getting individuals back, who were their highest priority murderers where the perpetrator fled to Mexico. San Bernadino has had some success; we've actually been down there teaching them some of our techniques. Also Ventura recently had success in that arena. Riverside has had some. So it was sort of: Now that the law has changed and everyone is on to the fact we can get them back, we're now all petitioning the U.S. Marshal to target some of our most serious offenders.

Signal: Do you have any idea where in Mexico some of these people are?

Cooley: I'm sure that the U.S. Marshals do, or if they don't, they'll find out. They're very good at what they do.

Signal: Did you ever know of, or field offers from, people who wanted to go and deal with Armando Garcia one way or another — either bring him back or anything else?

Cooley: We're talking about a dead-or-alive kind of thing?

Signal: Yes.

Cooley: There were all kinds of different, let's say, "creative and resourceful" thoughts on how to bring justice in this case, given the dilemma everyone faced with the former decision of the Mexican Supreme Court. Fortunately, over time, they changed their opinion and due process prevailed, and everything that was done, was done within the law.

Signal: Obviously, if Armando Garcia had been in California one way or another — even without the consent or knowledge of the Mexican government — then all bets would be off; he'd be subject to California law, and it wouldn't matter what Mexico said.

Cooley: Well, that's true. No, if he would have decided to slide across the border for whatever reason, he made it over here, then we would have had the option of pursuing the death penalty. And quite frankly, and in this case, we probably would have.

Signal: So you didn't pursue the death penalty—

Cooley: Under the compulsion of the treaty.

Signal: So you did agree, for this extradition, not to pursue the death penalty?

Cooley: Under the compulsion of the treaty assigned by our federal government and the Mexican government, we had no other choice. That's just part of the treaty. In order to — as a condition of precedent to him being extradited, we have to state that we will not pursue the death penalty. Because that's required by the treaty, unless the extraditing country waives that provision. Mexico is not likely to do that, and they really have a long history of not doing that.

Signal: You sat here a couple of years ago and said that what you wanted for Armando Garcia was death.

Cooley: Yeah. That would have been the best of all worlds. But I will tell you the March family was asked the same question the day of the plea and the sentence, and John March said, (the way) the death penalty goes in California, with all of the appeals and all the rights accorded to someone sentenced to death — he was very, very satisfied with this result. And he thinks that this particular punishment might even be worse than a quick death — although as the death penalty goes in California, (there is) no such thing as a quick death.
    The death penalty is very rarely implemented, for reasons we don't need to go into now, but unfortunately is not implemented often enough when jurors have made the decision that that is the appropriate sentence.

Signal: We don't need to go into it now, but quickly, what is going on with the death penalty? If memory serves, several months ago a court put a stay on all executions.

Cooley: The case is pending in a federal court. There is a federal judge or magistrate who is evaluating whether or not the method of execution by lethal injection violates the Constitution. They conducted many, many evidentiary hearings, reviewed the processes undertaken by the California State Prison authorities, and essentially put all executions on hold until a resolution of that matter.

Signal: And lethal injection is what we use in California—

Cooley: It used to be the gas chamber not too long ago, (but) we moved away from that, and (lethal injection is) more humane way to execute someone.
    The ruling, so far, is that this methodology that we currently employ in terms of lethal injection could be improved upon, so that's kind of where we are.

Signal: So are you happier waiting four years, 10 months and a day to get life imprisonment for Armando Garcia, or would you have been happier going down there, bringing him back and getting death?

Cooley: Well, we couldn't go down there and bring him back legally without engaging in kidnapping, which — I try not to violate laws in the performance of my duties.
    I think that seeing the satisfaction on the face of Barbara and John March, Teri March, David's sister Erin — they were very, very pleased, satisfied, I think relieved, that this long ordeal, this struggle for justice, has finally reached this point.

Signal: Is this the highlight of your career?

Cooley: I think it's right up there. Yeah. I'd say so.

    See this interview in its entirety today at 8:30 a.m., and watch for another "Newsmaker of the Week" on Wednesday at 9:30 p.m. on SCVTV Channel 20, available to Time Warner Cable subscribers throughout the Santa Clarita Valley.

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