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Video Alone Won't Settle Beating Case

Inglewood: Experts say that much on the tape is open to interpretation, and that gas station surveillance footage might aid accused officer.

July 29, 2002|STEVE BERRY | TIMES STAFF WRITER

At first glance, the home video recording of an Inglewood police officer beating 16-year-old Donovan Jackson seems to leave little in doubt. The images are clear and disturbing: Officer Jeremy J. Morse slams the youth onto the trunk of a patrol car and then punches him in the jaw.

Case closed? Not by a long shot, say some legal experts in the use of force and jury selection.

Although the videotape means Morse's attorney will have a lot of explaining to do if the indicted officer goes to trial on assault charges, prosecutors also will face problems, the experts say.

To start with, the Los Angeles County district attorney's office will have to deal with additional videotapes recorded by surveillance cameras at the Inglewood gas station where the incident took place July 6.

The grainy recordings, made public by the defense a week ago, appear to show about 1 1/2-minutes of scuffling between Jackson and several officers that occurred just before the trunk slamming was captured on tape by part-time disc jockey Mitchell Crooks from across the street.

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Tuesday July 30, 2002 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 10 inches; 360 words Type of Material: Correction
Jackson's lawyer--In a story in Monday's California section, it was incorrectly reported that lawyer Johnnie L. Cochran Jr. is no longer representing Donovan Jackson, the 16-year-old who is seen on videotape being struck by an Inglewood police officer. Cochran is representing Jackson.

Defense attorneys contend that the surveillance tapes provide visual evidence, along with the emotional impact it carries, corroborating police claims that Jackson resisted arrest before he was handcuffed. They also put Morse's violent actions in context, they say.

Moreover, a video, even when seared into the consciousness of television viewers, does not necessarily ensure a conviction. That was demonstrated by the infamous 1991 video of four LAPD officers arresting motorist Rodney King.

The video shows King being struck with batons more than 50 times in 81 seconds. Nonetheless, a Simi Valley jury acquitted the officers. Later, however, the tape was used in a federal trial to help convict two of them.

"There is still plenty [on the Inglewood tapes] open for interpretation," said Loyola Law School professor Laurie Levenson, a former federal prosecutor. "This case is not an absolute winner for either side."

If prosecutors win a conviction, Morse, 24, could get three years in prison. His partner, Bijan Darvish, 25, charged with writing a false police report, also faces a possible three-year prison term.

The Crooks video is expected to be a powerful tool for prosecutors because, at first impression, such evidence is viewed by juries as an objective reflection of reality. That makes videos hard to challenge, said Harland Braun, who successfully defended LAPD Officer Theodore J. Briseno in the federal Rodney King trial. "They create a superficial impression that you know what happened because you saw it with your own eyes," Braun said.

When tapes are enhanced or run in slow motion, they can make an image seem even more violent than at regular speed, said Joe Saltzman, associate dean of the USC Annenberg School of Communications. "Hitting someone with a fist is a [quick] boom, bang event, but when you slow it down, it looks much more horrific," he said.

On the other hand, videotapes can be stripped of their impact when they are played over and over again, said Gary Blasi, a UCLA law professor who is conducting research on juror attitudes.

"If there is any lesson to be learned from the [acquittals in the] Rodney King case, it is that the jury saw them over 50 times, frame by frame, so that over a period it lost all meaning," he said.

"Once you break it down frame by frame, it is no longer a story about an individual. It becomes an analytical thing, and it loses its emotional appeal."

Reactions Heard on Tape

The Crooks tape reveals powerful details when viewed without enhancements or slow motion. For one thing, as Morse reaches the patrol car carrying Jackson by his shirt and the seat of his pants, the tape appears to show the officer, like a baseball pitcher rearing back to hurl a fast ball, hoisting the youth up higher so that he can throw him down harder.

Moreover, the shocked reactions of Crooks and his friends are clearly audible as Morse manhandles Jackson.

Yet as harsh as Morse appears, the Crooks tape still gives defense attorneys room for argument.

Darvish's attorney, Ronald G. Brower, said one image will help him show that Darvish did not file a false report by failing to reveal Morse slammed Jackson on the car's trunk. That image, Brower contends, shows Darvish looking away at the moment that Jackson's body crashes on the car.

Attorney John Barnett, who is representing Morse, said the tapes carry a major advantage for the defense that the King tapes did not provide. Instead of having to explain a cascade of baton blows, he said he only has to explain two actions by Morse.

In addition, the Inglewood video lacks the extremely damaging audio sounds that the King video carried, said Barnett, who defended Officer Briseno during the Simi Valley trial in the King beating. "You could hear the bones breaking, and the metal batons clanging against the concrete and flesh," he said. "It was a very unpleasant sound."

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