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THE STATE : RAMPART

The System Has Become Dysfunctional

March 19, 2000|Charles L. Lindner | Charles L. Lindner is past president of the Los Angeles Criminal Bar Assn.

The criminal-justice system in Los Angeles is broken. No spin doctor can mask the institutional breakdown at the Los Angeles Police Department. The Rampart scandal could not have occurred without the district attorney and the judiciary looking the other way for years. The city has arrived at this sad juncture because local law-enforcement officials have attempted to evade personal responsibility for the Rampart debacle.

The chief of of police, accusing the district attorney of going too slow in indicting criminal cops, cuts off the county's top prosecutor from the Police Department's findings in its internal investigation of corruption. In response, the district attorney says the chief is behaving illegally. The reasons for this near-chaos in the local enforcement of the law have been exposed by the Rampart scandal. Police Chief Bernard C. Parks. Dist. Atty. Gil Garcetti and the Los Angeles criminal bench, collectively, have made decisions that inevitably led us to Rampart.

* The judiciary has turned a blind eye to police perjury. Judges have a constitutional duty to protect defendants' constitutional rights. The judicial appointments of Govs. George Deukmejian and Pete Wilson have filled the bench with former prosecutors. One result is that it has been 10 years since I heard a judge say, "I do not find the officer's testimony credible."

Outside the presence of jurors, the equation has become hauntingly simple. State court judges will accept police fabrications as the "truth" because they do not want "technicalities" interfering with the apprehension and imprisonment of "bad guys." Those "technicalities" include the 4th, 5th and 6th Amendments of the U.S. Constitution. Defense expectations of fairness have fallen so low that the highest compliment a defense lawyer can pay a judge is, "He gave me a fair trial"--and it is not said with great frequency.

In too many cases, the judge is the de facto prosecutor because the deputy district attorney is either so inexperienced or inept that he or she needs a little help. So the judge steps in and questions the officer testifying, strengthens dubious parts of his or her story and withdraws after bolstering the cop's testimony. With the singular exception of the court's most senior jurist, judges never take over cross-examination to hammer at a cop for what seems a questionable story.

This abdication of constitutional oversight and the virtual merger of judge and prosecutor have contributed to an environment in which cops assigned to the anti-gang CRASH unit at Rampart believed they could break the law with impunity. Cops can lie on the stand because they fear no judicial sanction. With the exception of Mark Fuhrman, the detective who testified in the O.J. Simpson double-murder trial, no police officer in modern times has been prosecuted for lying under oath, as long as he lied for the prosecution.

* Deputy district attorneys failed to recognize that LAPD officers were lying in their police reports and testimony. Garcetti's failure, so far, to indict police officers for criminal conduct is no accident nor part of some great prosecutorial plan to ferret out police corruption. A year ago, a deputy D.A. who believed then-Officer Rafael Perez, whose revelations exposed the police misconduct at Rampart, was lying under oath was scolded by his superior.

Virtually no defense attorney thus believes that Garcetti can or will carry out a comprehensive investigation and prosecution of police criminals. His office lacks the political will to put what may be dozens of rogue cops in prison. Jailing cops--even bad cops--is the antithesis of the office's belief system. Indeed, the Rampart scandal has caused a crisis of faith at the D.A.'s office. Most deputy district attorneys close their eyes to the possibility that cops may lie to them all the time. But Perez admitted as much.

* The district attorney's office has fostered a culture of mistrust between prosecutors and defense lawyers. Two decades ago, prosecutors and defenders regularly socialized at Little Joe's restaurant in Chinatown. In the last 20 years, this critical relationship has deteriorated, especially in L.A. County. Worse, deputy district attorneys are trained and encouraged to have a near-paranoid distrust of defense counsel. Prosecutors who have left Garcetti's office to join the defense ranks are considered as having "gone over to the dark side."

Defense attorneys have access to the one eyewitness whose version often varies substantially from the officer's: the defendant. But prosecutors simply cannot comprehend that a defendant could be telling the truth.

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