A Superior Court appeals panel on Thursday threw out a battery conviction against a Los Angeles police officer accused of assaulting a jaywalker in 1991, finding that the prosecutor improperly invited jurors to reform the Police Department after other LAPD officers were acquitted of beating Rodney King.
The panel also found that the judge erred by letting the prosecutor contrast the downtown court jurors with their Simi Valley counterparts. "This is not Simi Valley," the prosecutor said. "This is Los Angeles, and you people are smart, and you know what's going on."
When filed in Municipal Court, the case of Valley Traffic Officer Clark Baker was viewed as a symbol of how the justice system would treat wayward police officers. But Barry Levin, the lawyer who represented Baker during his appeal, said it now is obvious that Baker was little more than a political scapegoat.
"This is a good day, a very good day," said Baker, who had received numerous commendations during a 10-year career. "I just want this behind me."
Baker's colleagues at the Valley Traffic Division in Van Nuys cheered when a supervisor announced at the afternoon roll call that his conviction had been overturned.
Baker was accused of slapping, kicking and dragging a handcuffed, 21-year-old Salvadoran immigrant he had ticketed for jaywalking. An internal police board cleared Baker, but criminal charges were filed about a year later. It was the first excessive force complaint against him.
Baker, now 36, was convicted of battery last year in Municipal Court, but the jury deadlocked 10 to 2 in favor of conviction on a charge of excessive force. He was sentenced to probation, counseling and 350 hours of community service.
At his sentencing, Judge Veronica Simmons McBeth said she "had no confidence that the LAPD, if allowed to handle this internally, would take steps to make sure this does not happen again."
Baker's trial occurred eight months after a Superior Court jury in Simi Valley acquitted LAPD officers of abusing their authority in beating King.
Reversing Baker's conviction, the Superior Court appeals panel observed, "This case involved a moderate amount of force and discourtesy by appellant and a moderate amount of belligerence by the jaywalker."
The judges ruled that prosecutor David Sotelo's repeated references to the King case during an emotionally charged period had denied Baker a fair trial, and in effect made Sotelo an unsworn witness at the trial. The judges also found misconduct by Judge McBeth, saying she failed to curb Sotelo's remarks, and ruled that defense attorney Bob Wilson, by not objecting to the remarks, failed to provide effective counsel.
Sotelo's remarks to the jury included the following:
* "Teach him to be responsible. That's all we're asking you. So we can bring in the new wind of change that's happening in that department."
* "What we're doing here is we're weeding out that small percentage of police officers."
* "What happened to Mr. Rodney King was outrageous and makes you really sick. . . . But you know that same argument was made in all police cases: 'You can't judge us. We decide. We're the cops. We're this thin blue line. We're protecting you from the criminals, from the Rodney Kings of this world.' "
Appellate attorney Levin said Thursday: "He wasn't prosecuting Baker anymore. He was prosecuting those four other officers."
In an 18-page opinion, the judges agreed, calling the prosecutor's remarks improper because "they were not based on the facts in this case and appealed to the passions and prejudices of the jury."
The Los Angeles County district attorney's office had no comment on the finding of prosecutorial misconduct, and has not decided whether to refile the misdemeanor battery charge against Baker.
But Lt. John Dunkin said the LAPD already was clearing the way for Baker's return to work. He has been suspended without pay since December, awaiting a hearing before a second internal police board. However, since the conviction against Baker no longer stands, the hearing no longer is necessary, Dunkin said.
Baker said he already has completed his 350 hours of community service at El Rescate, a Pico-Union community service agency that works with Central American immigrants. He said his car was vandalized there three times.
"I don't blame the city for being angry," he said. "This has been the worst experience I have had in my life. If anything, this has made me a better officer because it made me much more sensitive to the feelings of citizens who are charged."
He added: "I look forward to going back on the street and serving the public faithfully."