VAN NUYS — Prosecutors and defense attorneys Monday painted starkly contrasting pictures of what happened last year when violence broke out at a protest against ex-klansman David Duke's appearance at a Cal State Northridge debate on affirmative action.
Prosecutors contend that a group of student radicals from the Bay Area traveled to the protest intending to incite other students into fighting with police to gain publicity for the movement opposing Proposition 209. The measure later passed, eliminating state affirmative action measures.
Defense lawyers alleged that police overreacted and then tried to cover up an assault on protesting students by falsifying police reports and overstating the threat by the crowd.
Both sides presented closing arguments in the case against Sergio Gutierrez, 23, and Edward Vasquez, 21, which is expected to go to the jury today. They face up to a year in jail if convicted of the misdemeanor charges.
Prosecutors in the two-month-long trial allege the two men were instigators of violence during a raucous and much publicized debate on Sept. 25, 1996, between Duke--a former Ku Klux Klan leader who was a candidate for the U.S. Senate in Louisiana--and civil rights leader Joe Hicks.
Police in riot gear were called in to quell the protest. Four other students were also arrested and received probation after pleading guilty to lesser charges.
Vasquez, a junior at UC Berkeley, is accused of throwing 2-pound rocks at police officers who held back the noisy crowd. Gutierrez is charged with grabbing the reins of a mounted police officer's horse.
The officer said he clubbed Gutierrez in the head because the student refused to move. Gutierrez received 17 stitches and his bloodied face dominated newspaper and TV coverage in the protest's aftermath.
In his closing statement Monday, Deputy City Atty. Robert J. Fratianne said the two men, allied with a student group called the Coalition to Defend Affirmative Action By Any Means Necessary, were "militants" who knew that their actions would provoke police retaliation.
"You can't just hurl a rock at someone and then say it's self-defense," Fratianne argued to the jurors.
Fratianne acknowledged that there had been some errors in the processing of evidence, such as the failure to introduce a helmet worn by an officer who was allegedly hit on the head with a rock. But he said none of the defense's arguments about the handling of evidence take away from the fact that rocks were thrown with the intent to harm the officers.
"They could have missed the officer and it still would have been assault," he said. "It's the same as if you fire a gun at somebody and miss. It's still a crime."
But defense attorney Meir J. Westreich said police showed up in riot gear, ready to rumble with the students.
"The fact is that they were focused on BAMN that day," Westreich said. "I think they were geared up for trouble from the group. And if controlling them meant whacking a few of them, then that was OK."
Fratianne characterized Gutierrez's run-in with the mounted officer as equivalent to a tap on the shoulder. He said that it was an expectable occurrence in a protest that size for the mounted officer's horse to nudge Gutierrez, not grounds for self-defense. In addition, Fratianne insisted that the officer tried first to warn Gutierrez to let go of the reins with a blow on the forearm before finally striking him on the head.
In accusing police of covering up mistakes, Westreich said that instead of writing separate reports, officers from the Devonshire and Metro divisions, along with CSUN police, went back to the Devonshire station after the protest was over and cooked up a collaborative report.
"I don't think they spoke truthfully from the witness stand," Westreich said. "They were worried that they didn't have enough evidence. And if they would lie to you once, then they would lie five or 10 times."
During his arguments, Westreich referred to two differing chronology charts, one compiled by the LAPD and the other by CSUN police, as evidence that the officers were lying.
While Gutierrez and Vasquez sat staring straight ahead without emotion, about 20 students packed the courtroom to support them.
Vasquez's younger brother, Arturo, also a student at UC Berkeley, said the trial has taken a toll on his family. Both men have traveled back and forth from the Bay Area to attend the trial while still trying to keep up with their classes, he said.
"What happened that day was really powerful," the 18-year-old freshman said. "In a sense it was an historic event. I think my brother knows that it is really important for him to fight this case. This is clearly a political struggle for affirmative action for black and Latino students everywhere."