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BEATING AFTERMATH

Legal Issues Complicate Probes

July 14, 2002|STEVE BERRY and HENRY WEINSTEIN | TIMES STAFF WRITERS

With half a dozen investigations underway into the Inglewood police beating, prosecutors now confront constitutional and practical difficulties, which they must overcome even as they face pressure to act quickly.

Among other things, they must decide which agencies will take the lead and which officers, if any, to pursue most vigorously on possible state or federal charges ranging from assault to civil rights violations.

One potential conflict was defused Friday when Los Angeles County Dist. Atty. Steve Cooley took primary responsibility for the investigation, which was ceded by U.S. Department of Justice officials.

And Cooley's office acted with uncharacteristic aggressiveness, taking the case to a grand jury less than a day after the videotape of the police beating of a black youth in Inglewood came to light. That step may have long-term ramifications for the investigation, as it means witnesses already are being forced to tell their versions of the event under oath. A decade ago, federal prosecutors used the grand jury to great advantage in the prosecution of the officers who beat Rodney G. King, and now local officials are proceeding down a similar path.

The knotty legal problems grow out of the fact that--in this case, as with the King prosecution--there are multiple investigations. In the Inglewood incident, the inquiries include those by the U.S. Department of Justice with the FBI, and internal disciplinary inquiries and criminal investigations by the Inglewood Police Department and the Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department.

"The King case is the predicate for everything," said Ira Reiner, who was the district attorney then. That case and the beating of the handcuffed 16-year-old Donovan Jackson by Inglewood police a week ago are vastly different, Reiner said.

But "everything is measured against King and everything is seen in [its] context," Reiner said.

In an interview, Cooley agreed that the King case--which Los Angeles prosecutors lost in state court, triggering the 1992 riots--offers important lessons about prosecuting police misconduct. The federal government later indicted the same officers, and convicted two of them of civil rights violations.

"But I think we drew more lessons from Rampart than we did from the King case," Cooley said, referring to the two-year police misconduct scandal that erupted in September 1999 and brought the dismissals or resignations of more than a dozen officers.

He said Rampart showed the need for "prosecutorial oversight" of any investigation of police misconduct.

He said the scandal made it clear that prosecutors must get involved early in any investigation of police wrongdoing.

In the past, grand juries were not involved until police had completed their own probe, or were well into it. But in the Inglewood case, prosecutors decided to use its investigative and subpoena powers immediately.

"I don't think we've ever moved this quickly," Cooley said Friday, saying the public won't be subjected to "months of angst and speculation."

Merrick Bobb, the Board of Supervisors' special counsel on law enforcement matters, said using the grand jury speeds up the investigation. In the Inglewood case, street protests, the repeated broadcast of the videotape and intense media coverage nationwide put pressure on authorities to act quickly.

"The lesson from King is if you don't defuse it early, it can get worse," said Laurie Levenson, a Loyola University law professor.

Sherry Bebitch Jeffe, a political analyst and senior scholar at USC, said Cooley's swift action is intended to preclude "debate over whether he is dragging his heels when a black guy had an altercation with a white policeman."

Some, including protesters who took to the streets in Inglewood on Friday, aren't satisfied.

Gigi Gordon, a prominent Los Angeles defense lawyer, made a similar point.

"The community is asking why isn't this guy arrested," she said. "When a crime occurs and it's witnessed ... the guy is arrested and the details are sorted out later, except when you are a cop, then the details are sorted out first," Gordon said.

The grand jury, composed of private citizens, often lends credibility to an investigation.

In addition, the grand jury can put witnesses under oath and force them to answer questions now, before more evidence becomes public.

That means that the accounts of police officers in particular are fixed early in the investigation. In contrast, some police witnesses in the King case softened their accounts between the police investigation and the first criminal trial in Simi Valley, which ended in acquittals. That's when federal prosecutors stepped in.

Caroline Witcoff, head of the civil rights unit in the U.S. attorney's office in Los Angeles, said the fact that witnesses have already been subpoenaed to the grand jury has persuaded her office to move cautiously.

"We want to ensure that we do not do anything to interfere with their investigation," she said.

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