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THE RAMPART VERDICTS

Jurors Prayed for Help to 'Do the Right Thing'

Deliberations: Panelists say that witnesses' gang membership did not faze them and that the judge's directions were closely followed. 'We looked at the law, we looked at the instructions,' one said.

November 16, 2000|ERIC MALNIC and TWILA DECKER | TIMES STAFF WRITERS

By their own accounts, the Rampart trial jurors were scrupulous and intense in their five-day deliberations. They were even humble. They opened the first day with the Pledge of Allegiance and a prayer.

"We asked the Lord to help us do the right thing," said Lucy Leon, 42, a telecommunications technician from La Puente.

And in the end the right thing, these jurors decided, was to believe the testimony of gang members over that of Los Angeles police officers.

The gang membership of witnesses did not faze jurors.

"We felt that that was irrelevant," said Leon, who is married and the mother of three. "One of the jurors said, 'They're gang members, but they needed to be treated with respect. They don't need to be framed just because they're gang members.' "

In that, the juror echoed the closing arguments of prosecutor Laura Laesecke.

They were a group of 12 diverse people--seven women and five men--compelled to sit through an often tedious, always high-profile three-week trial, then hunker down around a square table to decide four police officers' fates. They had their moments of petulance, anger and sleepiness.

Jurors so heatedly discussed a charge of gun-planting that the foreman had to stand up and tell them to settle down. One juror was so insistent that one of the officers, Paul Harper, was guilty--while the others believed Harper innocent--that she sulked through deliberations for a while, reading a magazine and not participating. In the end she went along with the group in acquitting Harper.

Another juror dozed through so much testimony that pages of transcripts had to be read back. "I told him, 'If you [hadn't] slept through half the trial, we'd be done by now,' " recalled Victor Flores, the 29-year-old jury foreman.

Their verdicts may have left defense attorneys stunned and sputtering that jurors had made decisions before hearing evidence. But the jurors interviewed Wednesday after the trial insisted they had done everything by the book.

"We looked at the law, we looked at the instructions, we did exactly what the judge asked us to do," said Bryan Loetz, a 43-year-old flight attendant from Echo Park.

Some of them had never been on a jury and some of them do jury duty almost every year. But they all insisted that they took their job seriously, losing sleep at night, realizing people's fates depended on their decisions.

"I've never been in a position before of having so much power over someone's future," said Loetz, a first-time juror.

Foreman Flores, a machine operator from Huntington Park, said it bothered jurors at first that they were being asked to trust gang members. But no one in this trial was automatically credible or not credible.

"Just as some police officer testimony was believable, some gang member testimony was believable," Flores said.

According to the foreman, the jurors concluded that they could see the fabled code of silence at work during the trial. Flores said jurors were laughing when officers continued to say they couldn't remember relevant details of the case. "Yet they had no problem with the details that no one cares about," he said. " We decided, yes, there was a code of silence."

On Nov. 8, the first day of deliberation, jurors met for only an hour and selected Flores as their foreman. They decided to split the case into two parts: the charges stemming from the planted gun and the charges from the accident in the alley.

Jurors deliberated the gun-planting charges all of Thursday. Friday was a holiday. Jurors resumed debate on Monday. "We were going to deadlock," Flores said, but he talked the jurors into trying harder. Two of the jurors wanted to convict Liddy and Ortiz but "there just wasn't enough evidence."

Mid-Monday morning, the jurors began debating the charges involving the faked accident. Flores said that moved quickly because jurors felt prosecutors had more evidence to prove their case.

The fact that some of the accusers had never taken the stand was a topic of discussion.

Loetz said there was frustration in the jury room over not having heard from more people. "We didn't hear from [Allan] Lobos and that was a clear witness that would have helped us."

On Tuesday, they made decisions charge by charge on guilt and innocence, according to Loetz.

Flores said of the acquitted Harper: "He was very good-looking and very credible. Everyone liked him. But I said, let's not just acquit him because we like him. Let's look at the evidence. The more we looked at it, we found there wasn't enough evidence there [to convict]."

Jurors had high praise for the prosecution--and some criticism for the defense.

"The defense lawyers were too melodramatic, saying we shouldn't convict those men because they were heroes. They weren't heroes, they were guilty," said Leon. She was proud to be on the jury, although she said of the way she got on it: "I think the defense picked me because they thought I was stupid."

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