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D.A. Faces Another Uphill Fight--and LAPD Isn't Helping

October 08, 2000|Charles L. Lindner | Charles L. Lindner is past president of the Los Angeles Criminal Bar Assn

In the first, and perhaps the only, Rampart corruption case to be tried, Dist. Atty. Gil Garcetti has started another high-profile trial without the wherewithal to win it. Until last week, it was not even clear which of the 40 deputy district attorneys assigned to the Rampart investigation would try Sgts. Edward Ortiz and Brian Liddy and Patrolmen Paul Harper and Michael Buchanan. The four are charged with conspiracy to frame suspects, planting evidence, perjury and filing false police reports.

The trial has enormous importance beyond the fate of the four defendants. It will be a test of whether the Los Angeles Police Department and the district attorney can thoroughly and competently carry out a criminal investigation and prosecution against four of their own. Disturbingly, the fighting between the district attorney and the LAPD that characterized the early stages of the Rampart investigation may be continuing. That dispute involved charges by Garcetti that the LAPD was withholding Rampart-related reports from his deputies investigating the scandal. Has the disagreement entered the courtroom?

Last Tuesday, Superior Court Judge Jacqueline A. Connor precluded the D.A. from calling five civilian witnesses, whom the prosecution had subpoenaed to testify against the four officers. The judge ruled that the witnesses' statements were turned over to the defense too late for it to adequately prepare for trial. Reviewing the report dates, it appears that the LAPD Rampart Corruption Task Force commenced much of its trial preparation against the four officers two weeks before the start of the trial, which began last Wednesday. By law, all witness statements must be turned over to the defense no fewer than 30 days before the trial date. None of the five now-excluded witnesses had even been interviewed 30 days before trial.

A spokesperson for the district attorney confirmed that Garcetti's office did not receive the witness statements until roughly two weeks ago. Some reports were filed even later.

The blame for this fiasco cannot be laid at the feet of Deputy Dist. Atty. Laura Laesecke, the lead deputy prosecutor trying the case. The blame lies in the surreal power struggle between Chief Bernard C. Parks and Garcetti. The chief has repeatedly said that the LAPD is fully competent and dedicated to investigating itself in the Rampart corruption probe. But his department's handling of the five witnesses suggests incompetence, at best.

The LAPD's tardiness in delivering the five witnesses' statements preceded another blunder. For the first time last week, the department turned over documents that filled 27 CD-ROM disks, containing roughly 850,000 pages of material. The scanned-onto-disk papers were not indexed, contained a virtually worthless table of contents and had no summary or outline of documents. Since the police entered the documents as images, rather than as text files, a computerized word search is impossible. Guess what else Judge Connor excluded from evidence.

In addition to these setbacks, Garcetti has chosen to be represented by relatively inexperienced deputy district attorneys (the two prosecutors have a combined 26 years of criminal-law experience) compared with the defense team (a combined 110 years). Asst. Dist. Atty. Daniel Murphy, the top prosecutor appointed by Garcetti to run the Rampart probe and strategize the prosecution, withdrew last week for health reasons. His sudden departure on such a prominent case was reminiscent of Deputy Dist. Atty. William Hodgman's unexpected hospitalization at the beginning of O.J. Simpson's double-murder trial. In both cases, the D.A.'s case coordinator was out of the game before it began.

The prosecution's central problem is that despite strong pressure from the D.A., the FBI and the LAPD hierarchy, no other officer has come forward to corroborate Rafael Perez's accusations against the four officers. So, in essence, the D.A.'s case is the testimony of Perez and that of the alleged arrestee-victims. A far greater proof problem is that each of the arrestee-victims tells a version of his arrest that is not only inconsistent with that of the defendants but also is inconsistent with Perez's statements. Thus, it is unclear whether the jury is being asked to convict based on evidence demonstrating proof beyond a reasonable doubt or has been invited to participate in a judical game of three-card monte, in which they must guess which story is the right one.

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