Calling the LAPD's unfolding corruption scandal "potentially the most important case we've ever had," Dist. Atty. Gil Garcetti on Tuesday said his office will seek to overturn four criminal convictions and dismiss charges against a fifth defendant because their cases relied on tainted information and evidence from two Rampart station officers.
Garcetti said he has assigned five prosecutors to work full time on the corruption probe, which includes allegations that officers assigned to Rampart's anti-gang CRASH unit planted evidence, made false arrests and gave perjured testimony.
The alleged misconduct, the district attorney said, "goes right to the heart of the criminal justice system."
The county's top prosecutor said his office will go to court today to seek the release of Joseph Jones, who is serving an eight-year state prison sentence stemming from a 1997 drug arrest.
Additionally, prosecutors will seek to:
* Overturn a weapons conviction against Miguel Hernandez, 41, who served eight months in prison and is out on parole.
* Overturn a drug conviction against Manuel D. Perez, 31, who was arrested with Jones, but fled before he was sentenced. Perez was subsequently arrested in Texas and has since been deported to Honduras.
* Dismiss a 1997 drug charge against Wil Manzanare Rodriguez, 30, who never showed up for his arraignment and remains a fugitive.
* Resentence Carlos Antonio Romero, 25, who received a stiff prison sentence on a drug case based on a previous drug conviction that authorities now believe was illegitimate. Romero, authorities suspect, helped distribute drugs for former Los Angeles Police Department Officer Rafael Perez--the central figure in the corruption investigation.
All the cases set for action this week, in fact, involve alleged misconduct by Perez and his former partner, Nino Durden. Perez, who is cooperating with authorities to secure a lighter sentence for his own cocaine theft convictions, has implicated himself and Durden in a number of cases in which he says they planted evidence, falsely arrested innocent people and then perjured themselves in court.
In one case, Perez said, he and Durden shot an unarmed man in 1996 and then framed him for assaulting them. Javier Francisco Ovando, now 22, was released from prison in September after serving three years of a 23-year term. He has since filed a lawsuit against the city.
Garcetti said he has lost confidence in cases involving Perez and Durden and is being forced to drop them "in the interest of justice." Sources add that prosecutors are examining the cases against as many as 40 other convicted people whose trials may have been tainted by the misconduct of Perez, Durden and others.
"Are we going to have three or four or five officers--or a dozen officers, it's still too early for me to speculate," Garcetti said.
The district attorney said he is considering adding more prosecutors to the investigation in addition to the five he has assigned.
"We are aggressively pursuing every lead," he added. "This investigation is absolutely critical to the credibility of the Los Angeles Police Department, to every police agency and to the criminal justice system as a whole."
In addition to scrutinizing cases involving Perez and Durden, Garcetti said, prosecutors are examining cases involving all LAPD officers who have been relieved of duty in connection with the corruption investigation.
Prosecutors "have been instructed to examine every one of those cases--and we're talking about [a] large number of cases--and determine can you go forward without this officer's testimony," Garcetti said. "If you can, fine; if you cannot, then you either get a continuance or you dismiss the case."
Assistant Public Defender Robert Kalunian said he wishes the lawyers in his office were afforded the same opportunity. He said the district attorney's office has not provided the public defender with a full list of the cases involving the testimony of officers alleged to have committed misconduct. Rather, he said, prosecutors are sending out letters to defendants' individual lawyers, some of whom have since left the public defender's office.
Moreover, he said the district attorney has not given defense attorneys the names of officers who are under suspicion of misconduct, but who have not been formally accused.
"It's very frustrating," Kalunian said, adding that defense attorneys need that information because it could have a bearing on current cases working their way through the system.
One of the troubling aspects in the convictions that prosecutors will seek to overturn is that all the defendants felt compelled to plead guilty, instead of having a jury decide their fate. Defense attorneys who have cross-examined Perez and Durden in court say the two are among the most persuasive police witnesses they have ever encountered. Even as their clients insisted on their innocence, the defense lawyers advised them that they were better off making a deal than risking an adverse verdict.