Was it a homicide?
Usually, when detectives are called to a death, it doesn’t take long to answer that question.
In Joseph Garza’s case, it took months.
On March 31, 2016, a fire sparked at a group home in Nestor, a San Diego community east of Imperial Beach. Bystanders told arriving officers a man was still inside the smoking residence.
Firefighters entered the smoking home, located Garza unconscious and pulled the 63-year-old outside. He was taken to a hospital to be treated for serious smoke inhalation.
It didn’t take long for investigators to suspect 47-year-old Glenda Coronado, also a resident at the home, of deliberately setting the fire in her bedroom.
Charged with arson, and three counts of arson with great bodily injury, Coronado was subsequently sent to a state hospital in San Bernardino County to be evaluated.
On Sept. 8, Garza died. About a month later, the Medical Examiner’s Office determined the smoke inhalation he suffered months earlier contributed to his demise and ruled his death a homicide.
So why did it take until March 2017 for investigators to report Garza’s death to the FBI as a criminal homicide?
There are times when a homicide, defined as the killing of one human being by another, isn’t considered a crime. But making that determination is sometimes difficult.
“The vast majority of cases (are) hard and fast,” said San Diego police Lt. Mike Holden. “But there are instances where we’ll provide details of an investigation to the Department of Justice to determine if it’s statistically a homicide.”
Sometimes, for example, it takes many months for a person to die. When they do, multiple factors may have contributed, including the injuries caused by someone else.
It could be difficult to determine if it was a criminal homicide if the leading cause of death wasn’t at the hand of another.
The intent of a suspect and the actions taken by the person who died also matter.
Was someone armed with a gun and committing a robbery when he was shot and killed by a teller? If so, the killing could be deemed justifiable. What if a person is seriously injured by someone, but while stumbling away is hit by a car and dies? Could the initial attacker later be accused of homicide?
In every case, police detectives will conduct a thorough investigation. It will ultimately be the District Attorney’s job to determine criminal liability.
Detectives wouldn’t say why it took so long to include Garza’s death in the city’s homicide total. Investigators ultimately reached out to the FBI, which made the final call.
Only then, three months into 2017, did Garza’s death become San Diego’s 50th homicide for 2016.