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L.B. Appeal Ruling Upholding Award in Wrongful Conviction

November 12, 1987|TERRY SPENCER | Times Staff Writer

LONG BEACH — The city attorney's office said it will appeal a federal court's ruling this week that the city should pay a $2-million jury award to a Los Angeles man who was wrongly convicted of first-degree murder.

The U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals in San Francisco agreed Monday that the civil rights of Juan Francisco Venegas, 37, were violated when he was convicted in 1972, along with another man, of the Christmas, 1971, bludgeoning of William Staga.

Venegas had claimed that two Long Beach police officers coerced a key witness to lie in testifying against him.

Long Beach police officers Ronnie J. Skaggs and Carthel S. Roberson allegedly forced bartender John Sanderson to testify that Venegas and the other man, Lawrence Reyes, were together in a bar shortly after Staga was killed.

Decide in a Week

Assistant City Atty. Robert E. Shannon said Long Beach will decide within a week whether it will ask the appeals court to reconsider its decision or if it will take the case to the U.S. Supreme Court.

"We're disappointed," Shannon said about this week's court decision. "There is no credible evidence that either Skaggs or Roberson coerced Sanderson."

Venegas said he is not surprised the city is going to appeal.

"That's an all-white city (administration)," said Venegas, a Latino. "When I was a kid growing up in Wilmington, the Long Beach police would tell us not to come over to this part of town. Some things may have changed since then, but not the racial thing all that much."

Shannon said that if Venegas' "attorneys had any evidence of (racial discrimination), why didn't they bring it up in court?"

Deputy Chief David Dusenbury said the Long Beach Police Department would have no comment while the case is pending. Roberson is still employed by the department, while Skaggs has retired.

The appeals court also upheld a lower court decision to invalidate a verdict against a third officer, Douglas Bostard. Bostard was accused of physically abusing Venegas to gain a confession. The appeals court said that "however offensive some of Officer Bostard's acts may have been" there was not enough evidence to conclude that he had deprived Venegas of his right to a fair trial. Bostard has since retired from the Police Department.

A previous $1-million award against Long Beach that was granted to Venegas in 1980 by a state Superior Court was rejected by the California Supreme Court in 1983 on the grounds that a police officer cannot be sued for malicious prosecution. That suit was sent back to the lower court and will be retried on the grounds of false imprisonment. No trial date has been set.

Lack of Evidence

Venegas' conviction was thrown out for lack of evidence in 1974 by the state Supreme Court. The other man, Lawrence Reyes, confessed to the murder, which occurred in Staga's apartment.

Reyes said he acted alone. Of the four witnesses who testified at the trial, the court said, none could positively identify Venegas as having been at the scene of the murder. Two witnesses positively identified Reyes as the man they saw fleeing Staga's apartment with a television.

Reyes was paroled in 1983.

According to Michael S. Bromberg, an appeals attorney who represents Venegas, Reyes told police that after killing Staga he ran a quarter of a mile to his home on Maine Avenue. He then changed his bloody clothes, throwing them in a closet. Realizing he had left his father's car near the murder scene, Reyes awoke Venegas, who was visiting from Colorado, and told him the auto had been stolen and that they should report it to the police.

"He had not told me anything about a murder," Venegas said.

As Venegas and Reyes were walking to a nearby pay telephone across the street from Sanderson's bar, an officer in a passing police car realized Reyes matched the description of Staga's murderer.

Reyes was arrested and Venegas was ordered into the police car, which went to the crime scene. There a decision was made to also arrest Venegas, according to Bromberg.

Unclear About Time

According to court documents, the prosecution contended that Venegas had held Staga while Reyes beat him with a hammer.

During that trial, Bromberg said that Sanderson, who has since died, testified that the two were in his bar shortly after the killings.

After the California Supreme Court threw out the jury's guilty verdict against Venegas, Bromberg said Sanderson told Venegas' trial attorney that Skaggs and Roberson had threatened him in order to make him lie. He later gave a sworn deposition to that effect.

Shannon said that deposition is the only piece of evidence that indicates the two police officers threatened Sanderson. "Whether Sanderson was lying (in his original testimony), mistaken or telling the truth, we'll never know," Shannon said.

"First of all, the jury that made the award never saw (Sanderson) face-to-face. His testimony was read to them. And after the testimony was taken, he recanted it to two different people before he died," Shannon said. He said that Sanderson also told his son two days before he was first interviewed by Skaggs and Roberson that "the two Mexicans were in the bar" after the murder.

Bromberg said Shannon presented that evidence to the jury hearing the lawsuit. "And they didn't believe it," Bromberg said.

Venegas is now married and attending the University of West Los Angeles. He said he is studying law.

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