Pubdate: Sun, 24 Dec 2000
Source: San Diego Union Tribune (CA)
Copyright: 2000 Union-Tribune Publishing Co.
Contact:  PO Box 120191, San Diego, CA, 92112-0191
Fax: (619) 293-1440
Author: Matt Krasnowski, Copley News Service
Bookmark: L.A. Rampart Scandal


LOS ANGELES -- A judge's reversal of three officers' convictions has once 
again thrown this city's massive police corruption probe into turmoil, but 
officials said yesterday that the Rampart investigation would continue.

Prosecutors were "deeply disappointed" by the decision handed down late 
Friday night by Superior Court Judge Jacqueline Connor granting a new trial 
to three Los Angeles police officers charged with framing two gang members, 
a spokeswoman said.

Connor voided the conspiracy, perjury and false report convictions of 
police Sgts. Edward Ortiz, 44, Brian Liddy, 39, and Officer Michael 
Buchanan, 30. The judge determined that jurors engaged in misconduct by 
considering an issue in their deliberations that was never raised during 
the trial.

She also found there was insufficient evidence to convict the officers and 
criticized prosecutors for not being forthcoming about whether they would 
use as a witness Rafael Perez, the officer-turned-convict who started one 
of the largest scandals in LAPD history.

"While recognizing the enormous pressure on the community, on the police 
force, on the district attorney's office, and on the courts to 'fix' the 
Rampart scandal, this court is only interested in evaluating the fairness 
of the proceedings and determining whether justice was done in this case," 
Connor said in her 18-page ruling.

"The court cannot simply look the other way and ignore the improprieties, 
innocent or not, intentional or unintentional, that served to deny a fair 
trial in this case."

Just the latest wrinkle

The decision is the latest deep wrinkle in the sprawling dirty-cop 
investigation that has caused more than 100 convictions to be overturned, 
brought more than 70 officers under suspicion and further sullied the 
reputation of the department infamous for the Rodney King beating.

The department will soon be under the watch of a federal monitor. Civil 
suits stemming from the scandal are expected to cost the city $125 million.

The Rampart scandal was made public when Perez started testifying against 
his colleagues last year in an effort to lighten his sentence for stealing 
cocaine from a police evidence locker.

Liddy and Buchanan were accused of fabricating a report that two gang 
members tried to run them down in a pickup in 1996. Ortiz was their 
overseeing officer.

With the three officers' convictions reversed, prosecutors have the option 
of appealing the decision, putting the police on trial again or dropping 
the charges altogether.

"I do not anticipate that we're going to make a snap decision," said Sandi 
Gibbons, a spokeswoman for the district attorney's office. "We're going to 
look at (Connor's ruling) carefully."

Gibbons said a determination would not be made until January. A hearing in 
the case is set for Jan. 16.

Attorneys for the officers were thrilled with Connor's decision, comparing 
it to an early Christmas present.

But they were split on what the next move by prosecutors would be.

"I think they'll probably drop the case," said Buchanan's attorney Harland 
Braun, saying that Connor discredited the state's evidence. Ortiz's 
attorney Barry Levin said he was uncertain.

Shortly before the verdicts, former District Attorney Gil Garcetti was 
voted out of office and replaced by Steve Cooley. Levin said he was going 
to discuss the case with Cooley shortly and expected the new top 
prosecutor's decision "will not be based on politics or public opinion."

If there is a re-trial, however, Levin said he would "seriously consider" a 
motion to move the trial out of downtown Los Angeles. Levin had ripped the 
racially mixed jury after its Nov. 15 verdict, accusing jurors of bias 
against the officers.

Prosecutors may have success if they appeal Connor's ruling, said Erwin 
Chemerinsky, a University of Southern California law professor who has 
written reports about the police scandal and followed the trial closely.

"The judge found the jury committed misconduct by not following her 
instructions. But the line between disregarding (a judge's) instruction and 
confusion by a jury is a fine one," Chemerinsky said. "Her conclusion is 
reasonable. But it would be just as reasonable for a court of appeal to say 
the jury's actions do no rise to the level of misconduct. I think it could 
go either way."

Making an example

Before the trial, police and prosecutors said the first Rampart case was 
important to send a message to rank-and-file officers that any corruption 
would not be tolerated.

In a written statement, police Chief Bernard Parks said the probe would 
continue. "The ruling notwithstanding, it is important that we as a 
department move forward with identifying and rooting out corruption at all 
levels," he said.

Perez's attorney, Winston Kevin McKesson, said the public would not accept 
Connor's ruling.

"I don't think any post-trial ruling can erase what the jury said about the 
investigation," he said. "I think the community has spoken. I think that 
was the accurate decision."

Almost from its start, the prosecution of Ortiz and his colleagues seemed 

When jury selection began, a former Perez girlfriend made allegations that 
he was involved in three murders. Prosecutors did not call him as a 
witness. After testimony closed in the trial, the girlfriend admitted she lied.

During the trial, gang witnesses gave shaky testimony, and police officers 
called as state witnesses were hostile toward prosecutors and sympathetic 
to their accused colleagues.

In the end, defense attorneys were shocked by the jury's decision, and 
Garcetti acknowledged the prosecutors were underdogs.

More cases ahead

Regardless of Connor's ruling, prosecutors are expected to go ahead with 
the second Rampart-related trial: an attempted murder case against former 
Officer Nino Durden.

The former partner of Perez allegedly handcuffed gang member Javier Ovando, 
shot him in the head, leaving him paralyzed, then framed him.

Ovando was released from prison last year and filed suits against the city 
and county. He settled with the city for $15 million last month.

The Rampart case has produced no other criminal charges against any 
officers, but Gibbons said she did not expect Connor's decision to have any 
impact on future cases.

"Each case is a different case," Gibbons said. "They all have different set 
of circumstances. They all have different evidence."

But Braun expected the Rampart probe to fold up its tent after the Durden 

"They really don't have anything else, it seems," Braun said. "They've got 
Perez saying a lot of things that they haven't been able to prove. There's 
no 'there' there."
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