Pubdate: Wed, 09 Aug 2000
Source: Los Angeles Times (CA)
Copyright: 2000 Los Angeles Times
Contact:  Times Mirror Square, Los Angeles, CA 90053
Fax: (213) 237-4712
Author: Matt Lait, Scott Glover, Times Staff Writers


A Superior Court judge has overturned the 1997 drug sales conviction of a North Hollywood man because jurors never were told that the prosecution's chief witness, a Los Angeles police officer, had been relieved of duty for allegedly using drugs himself.

The convicted man, James Bryant, who has been serving a 12-year prison sentence, is expected to be freed as early as next week.

Judge Darlene Schempp said in a hearing Monday that jurors probably would have acquitted Bryant "had the truth been known about Officer [Gustavo] Raya."

At the time he testified against Bryant, Raya had been relieved of duty and charged by the LAPD with more than two dozen departmental offenses, including improper handling of narcotics evidence, using and possessing drugs and repeatedly threatening his wife with a loaded gun. He was later found guilty of those charges by an LAPD disciplinary panel and fired from the department.

Doubts about the credibility of police witnesses engendered by the LAPD's unfolding Rampart corruption scandal have so far led judges to overturn about 100 convictions, the vast majority involving ex-officer-turned-informant Rafael Perez. Prosecutors now have notified defense lawyers in more than 100 cases that Raya, a narcotics officer in the San Fernando Valley, was called to testify against their clients.

Authorities never informed Bryant or his attorney about the allegations against Raya, who had been investigated by the LAPD at least a year before he testified at the trial. The prosecutor in the case said he was unaware of the allegation against the officer.

Bryant learned of Raya's problems in June of this year, when he read an article about the officer in The Times. The imprisoned man sent a letter to Schempp, the judge who had sentenced him, and to defense attorneys concerning his case.

Last week, Bryant's lawyer, Alan Kessler, filed a writ in which he sought to have his client's drug sales conviction overturned based on the new information about Raya.

Schempp, however, refused to overturn a drug possession conviction stemming from the same arrest and trial, but which did not involve Raya. Instead, she cut his sentence in half. With the time Bryant already has served, plus prison credits for good behavior, his attorney and the prosecutor agreed he probably will be released as soon as next week.

Bryant's case may not be the only one overturned as a result of Raya's involvement. After The Times' article appeared, prosecutors sent at least 140 so-called "Brady letters" to defense attorneys in cases in which Raya was subpoenaed to testify. The letters put defense attorneys on notice that prosecutors have discovered information that may help a defendant's case.

Beverly Campbell, head deputy district attorney in Van Nuys, said it is too early to gauge the fallout from Raya's damaged credibility. Campbell said that as defense attorneys respond to the letters, prosecutors will look at each conviction to determine whether Raya played a key role or whether he was peripherally involved.

"You literally write him out of the case and see what you have left," said Campbell, explaining that if no other officer can corroborate Raya's account of an arrest, the case may have to be dismissed.

"The sad thing is that we may end up letting people go back into the community who really shouldn't," Campbell added.

Raya could not be reached for comment Tuesday, but he has previously declined to discuss his termination from the LAPD. Departmental officials, however, offered a searing assessment of the officer before firing him last year.

"Considering the counts that had been sustained against you, it would be exceedingly difficult to find any command officer who would be willing to have you within their command," read a statement from the disciplinary board that handled Raya's case. "Additionally, it would be equally difficult to find an officer who would be willing to work with you. Finally, it is doubtful that any city attorney or district attorney would file a criminal case against a suspect involving you as the arresting officer."

In Bryant's case, Raya was working as an undercover narcotics officer Sept. 19, 1995, when he claimed he watched another man buy drugs from the defendant in a building in the 7800 block of Lankershim Boulevard.

Officers later searched the building where Bryant was staying and discovered a small amount of heroin. Kessler argued at trial that it would have been physically impossible for Raya to have witnessed the transaction as he claimed, because of the layout of the property where the alleged drug deal took place. As to the possession count, Kessler argued that several other people were staying in the building and that there was insufficient evidence to show that the drugs belonged to Bryant.

According to the defense writ, "Raya was the only witness who claimed he actually saw Bryant doing anything wrong."

The writ states that Raya testified about the case Oct. 10, 1997--four days after he was relieved of duty by the LAPD.

"Officer credibility or the lack thereof was a defense [theme] throughout the trial," according to the writ, drafted by Kessler's co-counsel Richard D. Comess. "Had the defense known that Officer Raya was suspended, of the charges leading to his suspension, and of the evidence supporting them, it would have brought it forward for impeachment purposes."

Deputy Dist. Atty. Paul Bronstein, who successfully prosecuted Bryant after two earlier mistrials involving another prosecutor, said in an interview Tuesday that he was unaware of the charges against Raya.

"I never had any knowledge of this," Bronstein said.

The prosecutor refused to speculate on whether he would have called Raya to the stand if he had known about the suspension, but added, "I would not have enjoyed trying a case with that officer's problems. No case is worth my credibility."

Cmdr. David J. Kalish, the LAPD's spokesman, said he did not know whether the department notified Bronstein about the allegations against Raya. Since Raya's case, Kalish said, the LAPD has been working "with prosecutors to address these issues."

The LAPD did refer a potential criminal case against Raya to the district attorney's domestic violence unit Oct. 1, 1997, nine days before Raya testified.

Deputy Dist. Atty. Marlene Sanchez rejected the case because Raya's wife refused to cooperate with the investigation into her allegations that Raya had threatened her with a loaded gun.

Sanchez said she told the detective handling the case that she was not responsible for the drug allegations against Raya, and that those allegations should be referred to the district attorney's Special Investigations Division.

That never happened.

Cmdr. James McMurray, head of LAPD's Internal Affairs Division, said in June that the domestic violence was the strongest allegation in the case against Raya. Once it was rejected by the district attorney's office, he said, it was not the LAPD's practice or responsibility to take other elements of the case from prosecutor to prosecutor. McMurray did not return a call Tuesday seeking comment on Raya's testimony against Bryant.

Gigi Gordon, a criminal defense lawyer and chairwoman of the Indigent Criminal Defense Appointments Panel of the Los Angeles County Bar Assn., said the prosecutor had an obligation to find out about the LAPD investigation into Raya before he testified and turn that information over to Bryant's defense attorney.

"Instead of being watchdogs, they're being poodles," Gordon said of the district attorney's office. "It's an absolute outrage."

Gordon said she was first made aware of Bryant's case by Schempp, who expressed concerns about the letter she had received from the man. Gordon then notified Kessler.

The LAPD, Gordon argued, also has a responsibility to make sure prosecutors are aware of material undermining an officer's credibility, including whether officers who testify have been relieved of duty.

"Historically, there has been, and continues to be, no mechanism in place by which the district attorney makes it their business to get this information and make it known," she said.
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MAP posted-by: Terry Liittschwager