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Commentary

The Verdict: Yes, Juries Will Convict Officers

November 16, 2000|ERWIN CHEMERINSKY | Erwin Chemerinsky is a professor of law and political science at USC

The conviction Wednesday of three Los Angeles police officers for their involvement in the Rampart scandal is a vindication for the Los Angeles district attorney's office and the people of L.A. The unequivocal message is that the district attorney's office can proceed with other Rampart prosecutions with the confidence that juries are ready and willing to convict officers who are proven to have acted illegally.

A jury of seven women and five men found that officers Edward Ortiz, Brian Liddy and Michael Buchanan were guilty of conspiracy and filing false reports. Paul Harper, the fourth officer tried, was acquitted.

The district attorney's office faced tremendous obstacles in its prosecution of these police officers. The key prosecution witness, Rafael Perez, did not testify because, right before the trial, a former girlfriend accused him of murder, and the district attorney's office refused to give him immunity from any potential murder charges. Before the end of the trial the girlfriend recanted her accusations, but the case was already before the jury.

Perez would have been a problematic witness for the prosecution because of his own wrongdoing, but his testimony could have corroborated the stories of other prosecution witnesses. Indeed, these convictions bolster Perez's credibility in future cases; his accusations, which were the initial basis for the prosecutions, were found by the jury to be true beyond a reasonable doubt.

The prosecution also was handicapped by the loss of five other witnesses, who were not allowed to testify when the trial judge determined that the prosecution had not made timely disclosure as required by law. Moreover, the prosecution's case rested, to a large extent, on the testimony of gang members, who obviously lack credibility. The district attorney's office also had to rely on the testimony of police officers who were very reluctant prosecution witnesses.

Despite all this, the jury convicted three of the officers. Why and what does this reveal about future Rampart prosecutions?

First, the verdicts show us that it is possible to find a jury that will very carefully look at the evidence and whether it proves the specific charges. The jury in this case deliberated for four days; it convicted on some counts and acquitted on others. Clearly, the jury sifted through all of the evidence and, as the law requires, determined for each count whether there was proof beyond a reasonable doubt.

I strongly disagree with the defense attorneys who are criticizing the jury and saying that it was basing its decision on the pretrial publicity. That accusation is self-serving and terribly unfair to this jury, which by every indication based its verdict on the evidence in the courtroom.

Second, the verdicts show that juries today are, indeed, willing to convict police officers. Attorneys, prosecutors and defense counsel often have lamented that juries give undue deference to the testimony of police officers. For example, the district attorney's office has indicated that it is reluctant to prosecute police officers, unless there is an "airtight case," because of the difficulty of gaining convictions. And jury deference to police officers often has made it difficult for victims of police abuse to recover and for criminal defendants to challenge even false testimony by officers.

But things have changed. The events of the last decade have caused juries to give less deference to police officers. The Rodney King beating and the lies of Mark Fuhrman, and especially the allegations of the Rampart scandal, have damaged police officer credibility.

The conviction of these three officers is, in part, a result of these prior events, which have caused juries in general to treat police officers with more skepticism.

Now Dist. Atty. Gil Garcetti, and later his newly elected successor, Steve Cooley, can proceed with greater confidence in future Rampart cases, where other witnesses, including Perez, will be available.

Finally, and most important, the convictions of these officers serves as a deterrent to wrongdoing by other officers. The verdicts show that juries, and the public that they represent, will not tolerate illegal activities by police officers.

The terrible tragedy of the Rampart scandal is that officers who were trusted to uphold the law egregiously violated it, causing innocent people to be sent to jail. The jury's verdict powerfully delivers the message that no one is above the law and that police who act illegally will be convicted and punished.

In this sense, the verdicts were more than just a victory for the embattled outgoing district attorney. They were a triumph for all of Los Angeles, which needs its officers to act in accord with the law. The vast majority of officers, of course, do. But those who break the law, like Ortiz, Liddy and Buchanan, must be punished.

The district attorney's office has the duty to make sure that every officer who acted illegally, in the Rampart Division and elsewhere, is prosecuted. This is how police wrongdoing can be stopped and, ultimately, how the rule of law is vindicated.

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