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Deputy's Past Is a Present Problem

Courts: U.S. drops a gun case, fearing officer's '96 misconduct might hurt his credibility on the stand. He gets desk duty.


A 6-year-old evidence-planting and brutality case that led the Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department to discipline four deputies has resurfaced in federal court, raising the question: If a sworn officer lies once, should authorities ever trust him again?

Federal prosecutors this summer freed a man accused of illegal gun possession after deciding that they could not use Deputy Patrick Golden as a witness in the case because of his past misconduct. As a result, the district attorney's office told the Sheriff's Department that Golden should always work with another deputy as a witness, officials said.

Sheriff's officials have since transferred Golden to a desk job while bosses decide his future assignment, Assistant Sheriff Larry Waldie said.

The dismissal of the federal gun charges because of Golden's disciplinary record has prompted an examination by the Office of Independent Review, an agency created at Sheriff Lee Baca's request to investigate discipline in the department.

"It is an essential requirement for a law enforcement officer to be a witness," said Michael Gennaco, a former federal prosecutor who now heads the review office. "When a law enforcement official has significant credibility problems, it makes that impossible."

Questions about Golden's credibility stem from a 1996 arrest. He and two other deputies were recommended for termination because of their conduct, according to court records. A fourth deputy who was at the scene alleged that one colleague planted rock cocaine on a handcuffed suspect who was then driven to a mall garage and beaten unconscious by Golden and fellow Deputy Terry Burgin.

Sheriff's officials later allowed the three deputies to stay with the department, suspending them for 15 days and ordering them off patrol for two years, internal records and interviews show. One quit. Golden and Burgin were found to have used excessive force and eventually returned to regular duties.

This year, a federal public defender representing a man whom Golden arrested on gun charges discovered Golden's past. That led the U.S. attorney's office to drop charges in August, even though authorities did not think Golden acted inappropriately in the gun case.

The district attorney's office said it will decide whether to use Golden as a witness on a case-by-case basis.

According to a district attorney's database, Golden has been subpoenaed as a witness against 462 defendants since about 1995. Attorneys say it is unclear from the records whether any cases previous to the August case were dismissed because of the deputy's disciplinary history.

Veracity Pivotal

Criminal cases usually pivot on the veracity of officers who can testify about illegal activity they have seen. Defense attorneys question why the district attorney's office and Sheriff's Department would continue to use the testimony of deputies they had previously found to lack credibility.

"The D.A.'s policy here assists in keeping people employed who really should not be in law enforcement," said Assistant Public Defender Randall Reich. "It gives the Sheriff's Department no incentive to weed these people out."

Assistant Sheriff Waldie said the department can settle complaints against its employees for several reasons. "We fire people, and the Civil Service Commission reinstates them," he said. "We follow the evidence; we do what we can. We are constrained by the law."

Golden said he has been directed by sheriff's officials not to comment. Efforts to reach the other deputies were unsuccessful. Attorney Richard Shinee, who represented the three deputies in the 1996 case, said none of them was ever disciplined for planting evidence.

"Deputy Golden has done an excellent job since his return to work and has never been the subject of any other complaints," Shinee said.

Case Resurfaces

The 1996 case resurfaced in August, when federal prosecutors dropped charges against Mark Stephen Bellows, 20.

According to court papers, Golden and his partner were patrolling a Compton apartment complex troubled by gangs May 6 this year when they saw Bellows flee.

The deputies chased him and reported recovering a .38-caliber Smith & Wesson revolver they said Bellows tossed onto the roof of a neighboring building. As a convicted felon, Bellows faced federal prosecution for carrying a firearm.

Bellows pleaded not guilty. His deputy federal public defender, Ronald O. Kaye, checked into the background of the arresting deputies.

What he found was enough to persuade federal prosecutors to dismiss charges against Bellows on Aug. 15, even though they had "no suspicion," according to a federal source, that Golden had acted inappropriately in the gun case.

"After reviewing the information [in Golden's personnel file]," wrote Assistant U.S. Atty. Thomas P. O'Brien, "it is my belief that the indictment should be dismissed in the interests of justice."

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