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Biggest Little Trial in Town : Courts: The 10-week length of the Don Jackson trial makes it the most protracted and costly case in the history of the Long Beach Municipal Court.

May 12, 1991|ROXANA KOPETMAN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

The Don Jackson case, in the words of one attorney, has been "the biggest misdemeanor trial to ever hit Long Beach." It certainly has been the longest and most expensive.

Closing arguments in the trial of two former police officers accused of abusing Jackson during a traffic stop two years ago ended last Tuesday, and the case was sent to the jury for deliberation. The trial's 10-week length easily made it the most protracted and costly case in the history of the Long Beach Municipal Court, officials said.

The closing arguments alone took 3 1/2 days. They were long enough for defense attorneys to spend at least 10 minutes each thanking nearly everyone involved--the judge, the jury, each other, Randy the bailiff and Kathy the court clerk, to whom they issued recognition for providing jellybeans. In a misdemeanor case, each side usually takes less than 30 minutes for arguments.

"Because of the length of this trial, I did not feel it would be warranted to limit the amount of time (for arguments)," Presiding Judge James L. Wright said.

The cost of a trial in the Long Beach courthouse runs between $2,000 and $2,500 a day, Wright said. After 36 days of jury selection, testimony and arguments, that puts the tab for the Jackson case at between $72,000 and $90,000.

What happened in the courtroom during the trial was sometimes riveting, sometimes dreadfully boring. But the case was so celebrated in Long Beach that law students, prosecutors, minority leaders and others frequently filled the courtroom.

Judge Elvira Austin often popped in during breaks in her Municipal Court schedule. A wanna-be juror, one of 262 prospective jurors who didn't make the cut, was so intrigued by the case that he attended anyway, as a spectator. And police officers continuously strolled in and out during breaks, long enough to shake hands with the two former officers on trial, Mark Dickey and Mark Ramsey.

Dickey is charged with assault, and both men are charged with falsifying a police report. If convicted on the assault charge, Dickey faces a maximum of one year in jail and a $10,000 fine. If the officers are convicted of falsifying a police report, they could face up to six months in jail.

The former officers had stopped Jackson, a civil rights activist, and his friend, Jeff Hill, as they were driving on Pacific Coast Highway the night of Jan. 14, 1989. During a confrontation, the officer appeared to push Jackson through a large plate-glass window, which shattered.

The incident was videotaped by a camera affixed to Jackson's rental car by an NBC crew, which followed Jackson that night as he conducted a "sting" on the Long Beach Police Department.

During the next two days, viewers across the nation saw the image of a white police officer pushing a black man through a window. Public reaction to the scene rocked the Police Department, led to establishment of a civilian police review board and prompted a flurry of letters for and against the officers in local newspapers.

Dickey has argued that Jackson came to town to stage a media event and that he purposely lunged toward the window to break it. Jackson, a former Hawthorne police sergeant, called Dickey's allegation ludicrous, saying that the officer not only pushed him into the glass but also slammed him on top of the police car, dug his nails into his neck and kicked his ankles.

Police Chief Lawrence L. Binkley has never publicly taken a stand on the incident. But many among the rank and file have demonstrated their support for Dickey and Ramsey, as they picketed NBC and wore T-shirts that read: "We do windows."

"Throughout the whole two years (Dickey and Ramsey) have been waiting, what kept them going is the support they've received from officers across the nation," said Onorinda Dickey, the mother of one of the defendants.

The families and friends of the two former officers are not the only ones closely monitoring the case. Leaders from the National Assn. for the Advancement of Colored People frequently attended the trial, as did Woodrow Jackson, Don's father.

"I want justice done," said the elder Jackson, a retired Los Angeles County sheriff's deputy who is frequently on the phone with his son, relaying who said what on the stand.

Don Jackson, 33, now lives in Pennsylvania, where he is a graduate student in criminology and teaches a course called "Minorities and the Criminal Justice System" at Pennsylvania State University.

Jackson retired from the Hawthorne Police Department, saying he was forced out by superiors who tired of his work to eliminate racism in law enforcement.

Dickey, 30, and Ramsey, 28, also decided to retire as officers, citing stress-related disabilities brought on by the Jackson case.

All three men are paid 50% of their salaries for life.

Ironically, the trial began a day after the highly publicized March 3 videotaped beating of black motorist Rodney G. King by Los Angeles police officers. That incident quickly overshadowed the Jackson case everywhere but in Long Beach.

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