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California and the West | MIKE DOWNEY

A World With No Bad Guys, Just Topsy-Turvy Juries

March 17, 2000|MIKE DOWNEY

After a hero of the 1997 North Hollywood bank robbery shootout shot himself a few weeks ago, it became harder than ever to conceive of just how many people there must be who have to keep reliving and reliving that bloody day.

A 44-minute gun battle in the street. Cops versus robbers. Automatic weapons. Innocent bystanders.

Seventeen officers and citizens hit by ammo. One desperado gunned down, at the very moment he turned a gun on himself. A second badman--in full body armor--bleeding to death on the pavement, from 29 bullets his armor couldn't block.

So many human beings affected, either by what they did or what they saw.

A local store manager who witnessed some of the carnage of that day told me, after the suicide of a decorated police sergeant on Feb. 16 of this year, "I am in pain today, as I was yesterday. The North Hollywood shootout is still vivid in my mind."

He intended to attend the officer's funeral. And he also intended to follow, with more than just idle curiosity, a courtroom case in which a man's "violated civil rights" would be argued before a jury.

That violated party being the same guy who got shot 29 times after robbing the bank.

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On Thursday, a jury brought in a decision in that case. Or, rather, it didn't.

Having been deliberating since last Friday, the jurors could do no better than vote 9 to 3 that the civil rights of Emil Matasareanu, armed criminal, shooter of cops, were not violated on Feb. 27, 1998, by officers who didn't get an ambulance to poor Emil quickly enough.

But 9 to 3--that's what some of the 9 reported as the final tally--wasn't clear-cut enough for a federal judge, who was forced to declare a mistrial Thursday.

Something or someone had hung up the 12 people in that jury room, perhaps a modern-day Henry Fonda.

As a result, whether "deliberate indifference" on the cops' part cost the 30-year-old Matasareanu his life must wait for another day. It might wait until September, when the attorney for Matasareanu's survivors is expected to bring the case against the city and two retired LAPD officers to court again.

By survivors, I mean the dead man's family, not the people he didn't kill.

It was a compelling trial. One witness was a former police officer who came in from Indiana, having not worked on any force since, to testify about the harrowing time he had spent in the minutes after being shot, waiting for help to come.

There was also a 39-year-old officer and Medal of Honor winner who testified emotionally as to how Larry Eugene Phillips Jr., 26, and his partner Matasareanu kept firing at "anything that moved"--including him, one bullet grazing his neck.

This officer, a former Army medic, told of how, in his opinion, the crime scene was too chaotic and dangerous to permit paramedics to reach the victims right away.

Some feared that as the armor-clad Matasareanu lay wounded, allegedly saying "Help me," he might be wired to an explosive device. (After he died, police were able to confirm that he wasn't.)

There was even testimony on the trial's last day about the possibility that there could have been a third gunman at the Bank of America branch that was held up.

Cops earned their pay that day. Paul Divinski, who was managing a Van Nuys appliance store at the time, told me that three years later, he still can't forget "the distinctive pop of the AK-47 as it took down the innocents," and how brave officers with handguns kept trying to fight back.

"That day an off-duty officer came to my store on her own time and protected us," said Divinski, who lives in Valencia. "No one knew how many shooters were still in the area."

If ever a case came where a jury's sympathies--and the public's in general--would likely be with law enforcement, this seemed it.

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Just add it to the hundreds of reasons the LAPD Rampart scandal's timing is so lousy. Public trust has been shot to hell. Cops are turning on cops, the chief is at odds with the D.A., and nobody's 100% sure who the bad guys are anymore.

There must be even bleeding-heart liberals who wouldn't much care if a bank-robbing, civilian-shooting outlaw were allowed to keep bleeding.

Yet 9 out of 12 people on a Los Angeles jury apparently couldn't persuade the other three that a robber wronged the cops, rather than the other way around.

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Mike Downey's column appears Sundays, Wednesdays and Fridays. Write to him at Times Mirror Square, Los Angeles 90053. E-mail: mike.downey@latimes.com

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