Pubdate: Fri, 14 Jul 2000
Source: Los Angeles Times (CA)
Copyright: 2000 Los Angeles Times
Contact:  Times Mirror Square, Los Angeles, CA 90053
Fax: (213) 237-4712
Author: Ted Rohrlich, Times Staff Writer


A Superior Court judge Thursday suggested that the entire Los Angeles
bench might have to be barred from presiding over the resolution of
criminal charges against four police officers in the Rampart scandal.

Judge Larry Fidler said he was prepared to disqualify all Los Angeles
County judges from hearing the case.

He noted that a former deputy district attorney, who is now a judge,
is listed by the prosecution as a possible witness to acts allegedly
committed by two of the four officers. The four officers have been
charged with conspiring to obstruct justice by framing people they

Fidler, the supervising criminal court judge, suggested that it might
be inappropriate to ask one Los Angeles judge to evaluate the
credibility of another who was testifying as a witness.

He told defense attorneys representing the officers that he would
grant a recusal motion if they made one.

The attorneys seemed taken aback. None took him up on the offer
immediately. All said they wanted time to evaluate it.

Disqualification of the county-wide bench happens from time to
time--50 times in Los Angeles in the last year, state court officials
said. A similar conflict of interest arose, for example, in the case
of former Black Panther Party leader Geronimo Pratt during his
successful effort to overturn his murder conviction. A key witness at
Pratt's hearing was the deputy district attorney who had prosecuted
him and later became a judge. Like most where conflicts arise, Pratt's
case was transferred to an Orange County judge.

Shifting the case to Orange County could place it in the hands of a 
more conservative group of jurors and perhaps a more conservative 

Just how that would affect the case is unclear. In Pratt's case, a
conservative Orange County jurist freed him.

Rather than focus on the court's invitation to switch jurisdictions,
the defense attorneys spent their court time Thursday on a procedural
battle. They raised a ruckus about the way the district attorney's
office revised the list of charges against three of the officers, and
added a fourth officer-defendant to the case.

Defense attorneys alleged that the prosecutors had a nefarious purpose
in revising the case: to delay a preliminary hearing and what the
defense contends would be inevitable dismissals for lack of evidence.
Defense attorneys charged the prosecution wants the delay until after
November's election so that Dist. Atty. Gil Garcetti, who is running
for a third term, will not lose face.

The case prosecutor, Deputy Dist. Atty. Laura Laesecke, strongly
disputed that, saying it was her decision to file the superseding
complaint. "I'm not running for election. I'm not doing this for the
benefit of anyone," she said, adding that she decided to consolidate
new charges with old for the sake of efficiency.

The probable effect of adding new charges, both sides conceded, would
be to delay a preliminary hearing for months as the attorney for new
defendant Michael Buchanan comes up to speed.

Barry Levin, the attorney for Sgt. Edward Ortiz, said that his client,
even though free on his own recognizance, had a right to have his
preliminary hearing go forward as scheduled Tuesday so that he could
clear his name. A defendant in California has a right to demand a
preliminary hearing within 10 days of being charged.

The chief witness against Ortiz, former Rampart CRASH officer Rafael
Perez, is not expected to testify at the preliminary hearing, Levin
noted. Instead, prosecutors have said in court that they intend to
take advantage of a commonly used constitutional amendment, approved
by voters a decade ago, that permits law enforcement officers to
provide hearsay testimony at preliminary hearings. That would allow
someone familiar with Perez's statements to testify about them without
exposing Perez himself to cross-examination unless and until the case
reaches trial.

Although they won't have Perez himself to kick around, defense
attorneys boasted that they will still be able to undermine him. "This
is an extremely weak prosecution case that we believe cannot get by a
preliminary hearing," Levin said.

Another judge, Michael E. Pastor, who was set to handle the
preliminary hearing Tuesday, seemed irked that prosecutors were
upsetting a schedule that had been difficult to arrange. He denied the
prosecution's motion to substitute a new criminal complaint against
the officers, filed this week, for the original complaints. He said he
was considering ordering prosecutors to hold preliminary hearings on
both complaints.

Complaints About Bail

In the midst of the procedural squabbling, some details emerged that 
hint at the high emotional and financial toll the case is already 
taking on defendants.  

Defense attorneys complained that their clients have lost thousands of
dollars in nonrefundable bail bond fees because the district
attorney's office, knowing that they would be freed on their own
recognizance ultimately, nonetheless made them post bail to gain their
initial releases from custody.

"I have personal and secondhand knowledge of the proceedings in these
cases being used in [an] extremely, almost violent . . . extortionist
manner," said attorney Paul DePasquale, who represents Sgt. Brian
Liddy. He said he was referring not only to punitive initial bails but
to the harsh and embarrassing manner in which search warrants and
arrest warrants had been executed.

Prosecutor Laesecke, alluding to the search warrant served on Liddy's
home, observed: "It's unfortunate that Mr. Liddy answered the door in
his boxers" and was belligerent and that an intoxicated male relative
was present. She said that authorities treated the officers the same
way they treat every criminal suspect.

Laesecke opposed a defense motion to release Buchanan on his own
recognizance. She said she had evidence that the officer, who is
currently free on $125,000 bail, had made a terrorist threat against
an LAPD officer who was investigating him. She said a civilian heard
him making statements "to the effect, 'Let's get Greg, drag him down
here and use his head as a footstool.' "

Pastor delayed a decision on Buchanan's bail.

The judge whose testimony could lead to the disqualification of the
entire Los Angeles bench is former Deputy Dist. Atty. Mark Arnold. He
allegedly received false statements from Buchanan and Liddy as he
interviewed them in 1996 to prepare to try two men they claimed had
assaulted them. The men were convicted but have since had their
convictions reversed.

After that case was finished, Arnold was named a judge in what was
known until January as the Torrance Municipal Court. Then the Torrance
court and the more than two dozen other Municipal Courts in Los
Angeles County were consolidated into one administrative entity known
as Los Angeles Superior Court.

"We have one unified court," Fidler said. "If we are called upon to
make a credibility finding on one of our own, we're not going to do
it"--if asked to refrain by the defense.

Fidler also Thursday granted a writ of habeas corpus petition filed by
the district attorney's office to reverse the 1997 rock cocaine sale
conviction of Glenda Velasquez, 27.

Facing a possible sentence of more than six years in prison, Velasquez
had pleaded guilty to selling the drug to Perez's then-partner,
Officer Nino Durden, in return for a sentence of six months in jail
and three years on probation.

Case came to light when Perez, seeking to win himself a reduced
sentence for stealing cocaine from a police locker, began to reveal
information about himself and his former colleagues. He told
authorities that Velasquez had been framed.

Squez became the 85th person to have a conviction set aside in the
Rampart scandal at the request of the district attorney's office, and
about the 100th overall.

She was not in court to hear the good news. She had stopped reporting
to probation authorities in 1998 and a bench warrant had been issued
for her arrest. Her attorney said he did not know where she was.
Fidler canceled the warrant.
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