Pubdate: Sun, 24 Dec 2000
Source: Los Angeles Times (CA)
Copyright: 2000 Los Angeles Times
Contact:  Times Mirror Square, Los Angeles, CA 90053
Fax: (213) 237-7679
Author: Scott Glover, Matt Lait, Times Staff Writers
Note: Times staff writers Richard Winton, Jason Song and Twila Decker 
contributed to this story.
Bookmark: (L.A. Rampart Scandal)


LAPD: 'This is not over by a long shot,' the chief says, after a judge
overruled the jury's verdict in the trial of three officers.
Prosecutors will study their options.

Reeling from a judge's decision to toss out the convictions of three
Los Angeles police officers, police reform advocates angrily
complained Saturday, while Police Chief Bernard C. Parks vowed to
pursue convictions a second time.

"This is not over by a long shot," Parks said in an interview. "It's
unfortunate that we've gone through a trial of this length and depth
and then to have to go through it again, but we'll be prepared to
refile it if necessary."

The convictions of the three officers last month were a boost to the
investigations of LAPD corruption and signaled the likelihood of more
prosecutions to come. But Superior Court Judge Jacqueline Connor late
Friday took the highly unusual step of overruling the jury after
concluding that the panel had been confused about some of the evidence
before it. Her decision could set up an appeal or a retrial of the
three officers, who were convicted of conspiracy and perjury in
fabricating charges against gang members. In the interview with The
Times, Parks said LAPD investigators would meet in the coming days
with officials from the district attorney's office to consider whether
the case would be best pursued by appealing Friday's ruling or by
merely refiling the case and trying it again in front of a new jury.
That decision, Parks stressed, would be made by prosecutors, but
police would be prepared to support the prosecution in either event.

Another possibility, raised by law enforcement sources close to the
Rampart investigation, is that the case be taken over by the U.S.
attorney's office as part of a federal civil rights

Sandi Gibbons, a spokeswoman for newly elected Dist. Atty. Steve
Cooley, said prosecutors would study Connor's ruling over the next few
weeks before deciding how best to respond. Cooley was vacationing in
Hawaii and was not immediately available for comment.

In her ruling, Connor tossed out the jury verdicts against Sgts.
Edward Ortiz and Brian Liddy and Officer Michael Buchanan.

The three were found guilty Nov. 15 of conspiring to obstruct justice
by fabricating evidence and framing gang members whom they accused of
trying to run them down with a pickup truck. The prosecution argued
that the assault had never occurred.

The judge concluded that jurors had considered irrelevant and
incorrect evidence--testimony that the officers had been victims of
assault "with great bodily injury"--in reaching their decisions.

In fact, Connor said, that term was "copspeak" for assault "with force
likely to produce great bodily injury"--a far different concept, since
it does not require anyone to have actually been injured. She said
some jurors apparently voted to convict the officers because they saw
no evidence that the officers had been seriously injured, and
therefore believed they must have been lying.

She also admitted to having made a "fatal error" herself by denying a
jury request to hear a rereading of testimony about "great bodily
injury." At the time, she said, she thought the issue was irrelevant;
she realized only later that it was crucial.

Connor did not agree with one defense argument, however: that the jury
foreman had tainted the case by expressing bias against the officers.
She said she found the allegations troubling, but not solid enough to
overturn the verdict.

Connor said she could not let the public's desire to root out
corruption dissuade her from making the right legal decision in the

"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 in this court and determining whether
justice was done in this case," Connor wrote.

The judge's 18-page decision was a potentially crushing setback for
police and prosecutors investigating the LAPD corruption scandal. It
comes at a time when prosecutors, both in the district attorney's
office and in the U.S. attorney's office, are gearing up to file
possible corruption charges against other LAPD officers.

For the officers in the case before Connor, however, the ruling was a
relief and a vindication.

"I am certainly pleased the way the judge analyzed the verdict in the
case," said attorney Barry Levin, who represented Ortiz. "This
prosecution was not based on evidence. It was a political

Levin's remarks were echoed by other lawyers for the defendants, even
as Connor's ruling drew mixed reviews in some legal and police circles.

Winston Kevin McKesson, who represents Rafael Perez, the corrupt
former officer who launched the scandal, said there is one thing
Connor's ruling will not change.

"The conscience of the community--the jury--has spoken in this case,
and no amount of post-trial legal technicalities can un-ring that bell
that the jury rang on the day they rendered their verdict," McKesson

State Sen. Tom Hayden (D-Los Angeles), a longtime police reform
activist, called Connor's ruling "an embarrassing decision" with
"frightening" ramifications.

This is not the first time Connor's objectivity has come under
question. Before the trial even began, Connor came in for criticism
after it was disclosed that before being assigned the Rampart case she
had publicly stated that she did not want to see Perez, the former
officer at the center of the scandal, in her courtroom.

The statement, which she said was made in jest, came three years after
she wrote a glowing commendation calling then-Officer Perez an example
of "the best that law enforcement offers its community."

Connor also issued a series of rulings that many legal observers
interpreted as favorable to the defense.

Ruling Has Its Critics, Defenders

Among her critics was attorney Stephen Yagman, who has often
criticized local judges for their handling of police abuse cases.

"I'm certainly not surprised to learn that a judge who appeared to be
bending over backward in favor of the defense would overturn these
verdicts when simply tipping the scale in their favor didn't
adequately bamboozle the jury," said Yagman, who has made a career of
suing the LAPD over alleged civil rights violations.

Others took the opposite view.

Bill Seki, a former prosecutor in the district attorney's Special
Investigations Division who has since joined the defense bar, praised
the judge's decision.

"I think it takes a lot of courage for her to do something that is
going to be extremely unpopular with those who didn't sit through the
trial and who don't know the facts that were presented at trial," Seki
said. "From what I know of what she was presented with, she did the
right thing."

Seki is one of two lawyers representing Perez's former partner, Nino
Durden, who is charged with attempted murder and is expected to stand
trial early next year.

Perez never took the stand in the trial that concluded in November.
During much of it, he was dogged by the allegations of a former lover
that he had killed a drug dealer and buried the body in Tijuana. The
alleged crime, which Perez denied, could have been used in an attempt
to impeach him if he had been called as a witness.

The woman has since recanted her allegations and pleaded guilty to
making false statements to authorities. Seki said that could revive
Perez as a witness, not only against Durden, but in a new trial for
the first three officers as well.

On Saturday, Chief Parks declined to comment on the likelihood of
Perez's testifying, saying that, too, is a decision for

"We've said all along that Perez has to be corroborated by physical
evidence," the chief said. "That's true in this case. The prosecution
did an excellent job with this case in the trial, and they'll be even
better prepared next time."

In her ruling, Connor criticized the prosecution for waiting until the
end of the trial to announce that it wouldn't be calling Perez as a
witness, a decision that forced the defense to waste time preparing
for a nonexistent star witness. She also criticized the news media for
what she described as inaccurate reporting that might have tainted the

The judge's ruling created little noticeable stir in the central Los
Angeles neighborhoods served by the Rampart police division. At the
heart of the district, the streets around MacArthur Park were filled
with familiar sights, sounds and smells Saturday evening--street
vendors cooking hot dogs, storefront stereos blaring music in Spanish
and English, crowds of holiday shoppers on the sidewalks. There was
little sense that the judge's ruling would have an effect on people's

"It's too bad, but it won't make a difference," said Afsaneh Abaian,
the owner of "Big $5 Fashion" on West 7th Street. Police, he said,
"don't care about this area. There's so much prostitution and drugs
and people offering to sell you fake Social Security cards, driver's
licenses. But they don't do anything about it."

In a news conference at his Brentwood office, defense attorney Levin
said the case from the beginning wasn't evaluated on the strength of
evidence but on public pressure.

"There was a marked lack of physical evidence. I am thankful that we
have a system of checks and balances so that, when there is a mistake,
it can be rectified," he said.

He said Ortiz was "extremely pleased" that the court set aside the
verdict. "My client has been through a lot. My client is relieved."
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