Sheriff disputes in-custody homicide finding

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SAN DIEGO – Sheriff Bill Gore rejected a finding by the San Diego County medical examiner, who ruled that a 37-year-old man’s death in sheriff’s custody last year was the result of homicide, it was reported Wednesday.

The autopsy report, which was made public late last month, said the manner of Oscar Leal’s death was homicide, the result of Leal’s methamphetamine use, a physical altercation with deputies and the restraints they put on the suspect, the San Diego Union-Tribune reported.

Leal died at Tri-City Medical Center in February 2018 after he was pepper-sprayed twice by sheriff’s deputies taking him to jail.

“I respectfully disagree with the classification of the manner of death in this case as a homicide,” Gore told the Union-Tribune. “The pathologist wrote that this death was due to acute methamphetamine toxicity in the setting of agitation, physical altercation and prone restraint. It was purely due to Mr. Leal’s agitation that he was restrained.”

Leal’s family told the newspaper that deputies responded improperly to Leal’s plea for help while he was in the back of the patrol car.

Leal’s brother, Cesar Leal, told the Union-Tribune he received a copy of a video of the arrest from sheriff’s detectives, but he criticized the department for withholding the autopsy for more than a year.

The medical examiner’s office released the autopsy more than a year after the Union-Tribune requested it and said the autopsy report was sealed at the request of the sheriff’s department, the newspaper reported.

Leal was arrested at his Vista apartment on Feb. 28, 2018, after dispatchers received a 911 hang-up call. Deputies responded to the residence and arrested him after he failed a sobriety test.

Leal became agitated while being taken to the Vista Detention Facility, prompting deputies to use pepper spray, according to sheriff’s officials.

After arriving at the jail, he soon became unresponsive and was taken to Tri-City Medical Center, where he was pronounced dead about 90 minutes after deputies first arrived at his apartment.

Gore told the Union-Tribune that peace officers have a duty to restrain those who are agitated and under arrest.

“Were it not for Mr. Leal’s abuse of methamphetamine, he would be alive today,” Gore told the newspaper. “His manner of death is more accurately classified as an accident.”

In December, District Attorney Summer Stephan announced that no criminal charges would be filed in 12 cases of officer-involved shootings and in-custody deaths, including in Leal’s case.

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