Pubdate: Sat, 14 Oct 2000
Source: New York Times (NY)
Copyright: 2000 The New York Times Company
Contact:  229 West 43rd Street, New York, NY 10036
Fax: (212) 556-3622
Author: Don Terry


LOS ANGELES, Oct. 13 - The first of what could be dozens of trials of 
police officers stemming from the worst police corruption scandal in this 
city's history began today, with a blistering attack by defense lawyers of 
the state's case and its potential star witness, Rafael Perez.

Mr. Perez, a 33-year-old ex-marine who is the former Los Angeles Police 
Department officer at the heart of a continuing investigation of the city's 
Rampart police division, is not on trial, nor was he in court today. But 
his name and record dominated the proceedings, despite the efforts of the 

"This is not a trial of Rafael Perez," the deputy Los Angeles County 
district attorney, Laura Laesecke, told the jury in her brief opening 
remarks. "The only people on trial are sitting at the defense table."

Prosecutors said it was uncertain whether Mr. Perez, who is in custody 
after pleading guilty to stealing cocaine from an evidence locker, would 
even testify in the case.

But lawyers for the four defendants spent more than two hours effectively 
putting Mr. Perez on trial, calling him, among other things, "evil" and 

"Without his lies," said Barry Levin, a defense lawyer, "there is no case 
against any of these officers."

The four defendants - Sergeants Edward Ortiz, 44, and Brian Liddy, 38, and 
Officers Paul Harper, 33, and Michael Buchanan, 30, - are charged with 
conspiracy to obstruct or pervert justice. And as with dozens of other 
officers now under investigation, it was the words of Mr. Perez that first 
dragged them into the shadows of suspicion.

For more than a year, Mr. Perez has been telling investigators about 
corruption by officers at the Rampart Division, including planting 
evidence, stealing money and drugs from suspects and lying under oath to 
send the innocent to prison. About 100 convictions have been overturned 
since Mr. Perez began talking, and nearly 70 officers are under investigation.

Mr. Perez has himself admitted to committing a long list of crimes while in 
uniform. Indeed, he began talking to authorities in exchange for a lighter 
prison term after he was caught stealing six pounds of cocaine from an 
evidence locker.

Even as the trial began today in downtown Los Angeles, federal agents were 
preparing to search a dumpsite in Mexico where a former girlfriend of Mr. 
Perez said he had buried three people he and a partner had murdered several 
years ago in Los Angeles.

Harland W. Braun, Mr. Buchanan's defense lawyer, told jurors that the 
prosecution "has actually made a deal with the devil."

The defendants were all implicated by Mr. Perez, who worked in the tough 
Rampart division with them.

Rampart, just west of downtown Los Angeles, is home to dozens of street 
gangs and the social problems that help them thrive.

The charges against the defendants stem from a trio of arrests in 1996; 
they are accused of planting evidence and giving false testimony.

"The case you are about to hear," Ms. Laesecke, the prosecutor, told the 
jurors, "is about four men who took the law into their own hands."

She said they falsified evidence and lied in court. They are also accused 
of planting a gun on a gang member. "They agreed," she said, "to hide the 

Ms. Laesecke's opening remarks lasted less than 15 minutes. The defense 
took more than two hours to lay out its case, using charts and enlarged 
photographs, but all the time returning to Rafael Perez.

"Mr. Perez is a glib person," said Joel Isaacson, Mr. Harper's defense 
lawyer. "He has a good line and he's a good-looking guy. But with any luck, 
he is the most evil person you will ever lay eyes on."

Before the start of the trial, the presiding judge, Jacqueline A. Connor, 
weakened the prosecution's case by excluding the testimony of about two 
dozen witnesses.

The scandal could end up costing the city hundreds of millions of dollars 
in civil lawsuits. Earlier this year, a federal judge ruled earlier that 
the department could be sued using the government's anti-racketeering 
statute, which was created to deal with organized-crime figures.

Besides allowing one of the largest police departments in the United States 
to be regarded as a criminal enterprise, the decision increases the city's 
potential liability, since the law permits a longer statute of limitations 
and could triple the damage awards.
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MAP posted-by: Larry Stevens