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Police Credibility Debate Could Alter Legal System

Rampart: Defense attorneys often are not given key information. Scandal intensifies calls for reform.

October 06, 2000|MATT LAIT and SCOTT GLOVER | TIMES STAFF WRITERS

The sensational revelations emerging from the LAPD's Rampart corruption scandal have sparked a bitter legal debate that promises to alter the landscape of the criminal justice system in Los Angeles County for years to come.

At issue is exactly what defense attorneys are entitled to know--and when they are entitled to know it--about the credibility of the police officers who investigate, arrest and testify against their clients.

The Times has uncovered numerous instances in which police and prosecutors failed to provide defense attorneys with relevant information about officers, including a previously undisclosed case involving Rafael Perez, the convicted drug thief and ex-LAPD officer at the center of the scandal.

Even before the Rampart scandal, defense lawyers contended that criminal defendants in Los Angeles courts were routinely denied fair trials because police and prosecutors either failed to discover--or to disclose--information that might lead judges or juries to doubt an officer's credibility.

"The system is broken," said Gary S. Wigodsky, a deputy alternate public defender who is a leader in the call for reform. "Thousands of cases are falling through the cracks. The Rampart scandal is just a symptom of the problem, not the cause."

Prosecutors acknowledge that there is debate even within their own ranks about whether they are fulfilling their constitutional obligation to turn over information regarding officer credibility that may be favorable to the defense.

At a recent court hearing, Judge Larry P. Fidler asked Deputy Dist. Atty. Brentford J. Ferreira what the D.A.'s policy is on disclosing such information.

"You got me," Ferreira said. The prosecutor added that officials in his office were devising a formal policy.

Obtaining information about the credibility of police officers is crucial, defense attorneys argue, because jurors almost always will accept the word of a police officer over that of the accused. By law, prosecutors are supposed to give a defendant any exculpatory information, including material that may undermine the credibility of the officers in the case.

But such disclosures are not always made, and that can mean the difference between conviction and acquittal.

For example, when James Bryant went on trial in 1997 on charges of selling cocaine, jurors were never told that the officer testifying in the case had been relieved of duty and was facing drug allegations of his own. That officer, Gustavo Raya, eventually was fired from the department for drug use.

In August, Superior Court Judge Darlene Schempp threw out Bryant's drug sales conviction based on the revelations about Raya, which the judge read about in a June article in The Times.

After that Times report, prosecutors sent out letters informing defense attorneys about Raya and Mark Haro, another officer named in the article, who has resigned from the LAPD. He was found guilty at an administrative hearing of, among other things, illegal drug possession and plying an informant with crack cocaine for information.

Officers' Records Often Not Shared

But there have been numerous officers found guilty of such offenses as lying and stealing whom defense lawyers say they have never heard of and whom prosecutors have not included on a list of officers about whom they have made notifications.

According to the district attorney's list, which the office began compiling only after the Rampart scandal broke, no notifications were sent out on:

* Officer Thomas Lira, who was fired from the LAPD for, among other things, allegedly failing to book drugs as evidence and possessing and using illegal drugs, according to police and D.A. documents.

* Officer Juan Serrato, who was found guilty at an LAPD board of rights hearing of intentionally filing a false police report and fired because "his ability . . . to provide accurate and credible testimony is irreparably harmed," according to police documents.

* Training Officer Rodney Peacock, who tried to coerce information from a suspect by dropping a pebble in the man's shirt pocket and implying that he was going to frame him on a crack cocaine possession charge if he did not cooperate, according to police documents.

* Det. Martin Chalupa, who filed a false police report stating that his car had been stolen when in fact he sold it, according to police and D.A. documents. An innocent man was arrested and taken to jail as a result.

These cases, which have not been previously publicized, are just a few examples of officers found guilty of offenses that bear on their credibility. The LAPD has no formal system of informing prosecutors of these disciplinary decisions.

This has become a key area of interest in the wake of the Rampart scandal.

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