The killing of
Officer Keith Boyer and wounding of another officer have galvanized a
movement to ask state voters this November to reverse some of the recent
changes to sentencing laws and the prison system.
But a review of
the case by the Los Angeles Times and the Marshall Project found a far
more complex chain of events that allowed Mejia to remain free despite
his record of criminal behavior.
is the first in an occasional series examining the impact of recent
justice measures aimed at reducing incarceration. It is a collaboration
between The Times and The Marshall Project, a nonprofit news outlet.
findings by criminal justice experts appointed by Los Angeles County to
examine Mejia’s case identified local law-enforcement failures that had
little to do with the state’s justice reforms.
concluded that Mejia was allowed to cycle in and out of jail with little
punishment or treatment for his escalating drug problems because county
agencies failed to document all of his rule-breaking, didn’t share
important information with one another and gave him an excessive number
of chances while he continued breaking the rules of his supervision,
according to confidential county reports.
At the same time, court records
reviewed by The Times and the Marshall Project show, the district
attorney’s office missed an opportunity to send Mejia to jail and drug
treatment for several months in the weeks before the shootings.
documents provide important new details about a case that has played a
key role in the political debate over whether California’s criminal
justice reforms have gone too far.
The state has become a national
leader in easing tough sentencing laws imposed during the 1990s. Many
in local law enforcement argue that prison releases and sentencing
changes have caused crime to jump in some areas, though backers of the
reform movement dispute those claims.
One of the experts on the
county panel that reviewed Mejia’s case said the group’s findings did
not discredit California’s recent changes in its prison system or
“If the premise is, this is the golden case to
show failures, I just don’t think you can point to this case and say it
shows the failures,” said Cynthia Hernandez, a lawyer who has served as
an independent monitor of the county’s probation department. “Of course
we’d want a different outcome — it’s a tragedy. But I’d be hard-pressed
to find the link.”
Another member of the panel, Arcadia Police
Chief Bob Guthrie, said he saw the state’s massive prison downsizing
laws as an important backdrop to Mejia’s case.
“I’ve never stated
there is a direct connection, nor would I now,” said Guthrie, who
declined to comment on the report’s findings. “Do I believe there’s a
correlation? Yes, I do. Whatever Mejia would have done absent (prison
downsizing), we’ll never know.”
Guthrie, the president of the Los
Angeles County Police Chiefs Assn., said some of the changes have made
it more difficult for authorities to put away hardened offenders who
violate the terms of their supervision or are caught committing
lower-level crimes. A 2014 initiative that reduced many drug offenses to
misdemeanors, he said, took away an important tool to force people into
drug treatment that would be monitored by the courts.
members of the 22-person panel declined to comment, saying the county
had required them to sign a nondisclosure agreement about their work.
County lawyers have rejected several requests to make the group’s
The shooting of the Whittier police officers
occurred hours after Mejia killed his cousin, authorities say. The next
day, the Board of Supervisors directed county agencies to examine
probation officials’ supervision of Mejia after his release from prison
the previous year. The committee included representatives from the
county probation department, district attorney’s office and Sheriff’s
Department, as well as outside experts.
Among its findings:
Mejia’s probation officer used an “excessive” number of short jail
stints, aimed at stopping his bad behavior. Instead, Mejia’s supervision
should have been revoked, sending him to jail for a longer time.
Mejia, who had a history of drug abuse, should have been referred to
substance-abuse treatment screening as soon as he was released from
prison. But the county waited until he admitted using heroin and
requested help. Even then, the county waited two weeks before getting
him an initial drug treatment screening, which he didn’t show up to.
When the probation department did finally decide to get tough, an
officer recommended Mejia spend three months in jail followed by
court-ordered residential drug treatment. But the prosecutor handling
the case did not include the probation officer in plea negotiations and
so was unaware of the extent of Mejia’s escalating drug and gang
activity. The prosecutor asked a judge to send Mejia to jail for only a
The panel suggested a number of fixes, including providing
drug screening and treatment in jail; requiring drug-treatment staff to
notify probation officers about missed appointments; and limiting the
number of short jail stays for high-risk offenders before revoking
probation. The committee also recommended that the state, rather than
the county, be allowed to supervise some offenders who have a record of
violent crime when they are released from prison.
Probation officials declined to comment on the report’s findings.
district attorney’s office defended its handling of Mejia’s case,
saying in a statement that the one-month jail term sought by the
prosecutor was “appropriate as the goal of this process is to stabilize
the offender and obtain compliance.” Since the shooting, the office
said, prosecutors now typically seek three months in jail when an
offender with a drug habit is caught with narcotics while on probation.
Mayor Joe Vinatieri doesn’t dispute the report’s findings about
problems at the local level, but says it’s time to revisit the laws
aimed at reducing California’s prison population. He sees a direct link
between those laws and Boyer’s slaying, particularly the state’s
decision to shift responsibility to the county for supervising many
former prisoners like Mejia.
“How many more officers are going to be killed?” he asked. “Enough is enough.”
is backing a proposed ballot measure that would block early release for
many prisoners, toughen punishments for serial theft and limit the
number of chances given to offenders who repeatedly violate the rules of
The “Reducing Crime and Keeping California Safe
Act of 2018” mentions the slain Whittier officer by name and cites Mejia
as the type of “violent offenders … being allowed to remain free in our
communities even when they commit new crimes and violate the terms of
their post-release community supervision.”
Supporters of the initiative are gathering signatures to place it on the November ballot.
experiment with reducing incarceration began under duress with a civil
rights case in which the federal courts found the state’s prisons so
overcrowded that inmates were dying.
The U.S. Supreme Court
approved a cap on the number of inmates in prison. State lawmakers
responded by passing Assembly Bill 109, known as realignment, which
lowered the prison population by shifting the burden to the counties to
house and supervise thousands of inmates convicted of nonviolent,
Until then, state parole officers kept tabs on
offenders who’d been released from prison, while county probation
officers mainly supervised lower-level offenders who’d been in and out
of jail. After 2011, county probation officers were suddenly responsible
for monitoring people with much longer criminal histories for
Many law enforcement officials and
prosecutors say probation officers were never equipped to handle these
serious offenders. Before prison downsizing, parolees who violated the
terms of their release could be sent back to prison for up to a year.
Under the current system, parolees who violate county supervision can be
sent to county jail for only up to six months.
Critics of the
changes argue that even when offenders violate probation, they’re sent
to overcrowded county jails where they may serve a fraction of their
time because there’s no space.
But experts who’ve studied state
prisons and the system for supervising former prisoners say that, before
prison downsizing, California’s parole system was little better. It’s
unclear, they said, whether Mejia would have spent any more time behind
bars under the old rules.
People who violated parole rarely served
more than a few months in the overcrowded prison system, and many
violations went unpunished, said Ryken Grattet, a sociology professor at
the University of California, Davis who once worked as a top researcher
for the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation.
debate over the Mejia case has been further complicated by his own
words. In a rambling confession to homicide detectives days after
Boyer’s slaying, Mejia cited AB 109 in explaining his actions.
mean, they should’ve left us on parole,” Mejia said. “Instead of
spending money on … AB 109, just spend money on … kids that got cancer,
kids that need it. Instead of us, you know what I mean? That’s why I did
Proponents of the ballot measure argue that Mejia’s statement shows the prison downsizing efforts are to blame.
criminal himself said, ‘I did it because of AB 109,’ “ said Michele
Hanisee, president of the union that represents L.A. County prosecutors.
a transcript of the full interview obtained by The Times and the
Marshall Project shows Mejia’s chief complaint was that his supervision
under AB 109 was too tough on him and other gang members.
“They always just want to lock us up, lock us up. Give us more time,” he said.
by his gang moniker of Stomper, Mejia first went to prison in 2010 when
he was convicted of a robbery in which he beat the victim with a
When he was released, he was supervised by state
parole officers. He twice absconded from parole and was jailed at one
point for nine days for violating the terms of his release, according to
state and county records. But he wasn’t sent back to prison until July
2014, when he was convicted of stealing a relative’s car.
2016, he was released and returned to his family’s East Los Angeles
home. Because his last crime had been nonviolent, he was placed under
Probation officials considered him high-risk, and he was monitored by a special unit created in response to prison downsizing.
and court records show he repeatedly flouted his probation rules, such
as avoiding gang activity and staying clear of drugs.
the name of his gang, Winter Gardens, on his back, and “WG” across his
face. Probation officers found heroin and needles in his living room. He
hung out with other gang members. At one point, he admitted taking
heroin every other day and asked for help.
tried several fixes, the records show. They banned new tattoos. They
tested him for drugs and referred him to a treatment program. They sent
him to county jail three times between July and December, each time for
10 days. These short stays, called flashes, are designed to provide
quick, clear punishments to disrupt bad behavior.
In January 2017,
sheriff’s deputies found a baggie of meth in Mejia’s house. He was
jailed a fourth time, during which his probation officer moved to revoke
the 26-year-old’s probation.
The maximum penalty was six months
in jail, but the officer asked for three months, followed by
court-ordered inpatient drug treatment. A probation department
spokeswoman said such treatment typically lasts up to 90 days.
prosecutor offered Mejia a plea deal for one month. At a brief court
hearing, the judge told Mejia that his probation officer might refer him
for outpatient drug treatment when he left jail, but did not order
With credit for the time he had already
served, Mejia was released two days later, according to county records.
He told his probation officer that he was starting a construction job
with his dad. He promised to start methadone treatment for heroin use.
few days later, deputies got a 911 call from Mejia’s house. When they
arrived, he ran. They sent him back to jail a fifth time, for another 10
He was released again Feb. 11 of that year. His probation
officer referred him for inpatient drug treatment starting Feb. 15. But
five days later, on Feb. 20, prosecutors say, he allegedly fatally shot
his cousin, stole a car and crashed it.
As two Whittier police
officers responded to the collision, Mejia opened fire, killing Boyer
and wounding Officer Patrick Hazell, authorities say.
Days later, homicide detectives asked Mejia if he was sorry and whether he had a message for Whittier police.
“They just got a taste of an L.A. gang member, real gang member,” he told them. “And nope, I don’t feel sorry.”