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Man Cleared in Accomplice's Death

November 10, 1998|EVELYN LARRUBIA | TIMES STAFF WRITER

VAN NUYS — Rejecting the arguments of prosecutors, a jury on Monday acquitted a barroom robber in the death of an accomplice in a shootout with a controversial LAPD anti-crime unit.

The verdict was a partial victory for an aggressive defense for Michael Rochelle Smith, which promised to put the Special Investigations Section on trial but instead focused on the more common issue of the credibility of police witnesses.

Deputy Public Defender James Coady said his client feels "vindicated" and said the evidence should require police to reopen their internal investigation into the officers' actions. An internal review of the February shooting found the officers acted appropriately.

"They were never asked the tough questions and asked about the inconsistencies in the physical evidence," Coady said. "It would make sense for them to take a second look at whether the physical evidence matches their stories. It couldn't have happened the way they said it happened," Coady said.

While acquitting Smith of murder, jurors convicted him of robbing 14 patrons and attempting to rob three others on the day of the killings. He faces about 16 years for those crimes, Coady said. Jurors also split 6 to 6 on whether Smith is guilty of the death at hands of SIS officers of a second accomplice, and will continue deliberations today.

SIS detectives had Smith, Kim Benton, Eric Fields and Kirk Deffenbaugh under surveillance as they robbed the ClassRoom Bar in Northridge on Feb. 25, 1997. The squad followed and cornered the robbers in a cul-de-sac. There, Fields allegedly pointed his gun at the undercover officers, who responded with shotgun blasts.

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