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Jail Sentence Is Overturned in LAPD Case

A whistle-blower who violated a court order by giving documents about police abuse of spouses to a reporter was convicted of contempt.

October 30, 2002|Henry Weinstein | Times Staff Writer

A federal appeals court Tuesday overturned the sentence of a man convicted of contempt of court for leaking documents that led the Los Angeles Police Department to reform the way it disciplines officers who commit domestic violence.

But the U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals ruled 3-0 that Robert Mullally, 58, did violate a court order when he gave a television reporter copies of LAPD documents that showed the department had failed to discipline officers who beat and in some cases raped wives and girlfriends.

The court directed that Mullally be resentenced, stressing an earlier recommendation for probation.

Mullally had access to the documents because he was an expert witness hired by a lawyer who sued the department on behalf of Melba Ramos, who had been murdered by her husband, an LAPD officer.

The Ramos lawsuit alleged that the LAPD routinely failed to act on complaints of domestic violence by its officers.

As part of the suit, the LAPD turned over documents on officers who engaged in domestic violence and the department's response -- on the condition that they not be made public before trial. The case was settled for $2.2 million without a trial.

Mullally gave the files to a television reporter who aired stories on officers who attacked their wives, breaking bones, but against whom the LAPD took no action.

The reporting prompted reforms after an internal LAPD investigation.

But after Chief Bernard C. Parks lodged a complaint with the California Bar Assn., U.S. District Judge William D. Keller ordered the U.S. attorney's office to investigate. Mullally admitted that he was the source.

Keller found Mullally guilty of criminal contempt for violating the protective order. Keller sentenced Mullally to 60 days in jail, even though Assistant U.S. Atty. Thomas D. Warren recommended probation.

The Fund for the Feminist Majority and the American Civil Liberties Union came to Mullally's aid, arguing that if he were jailed, he would be the first person ever imprisoned for violating a protective order in a civil lawsuit.

The 9th Circuit Court upheld Mullally's conviction, even though it found that the protective order was unclear. The appellate judges said that under Supreme Court precedents, Mullally is legally barred from challenging the validity of the order after he violated it.

Mullally could have legally challenged the order, the court noted.

But the federal appeals judges vacated the sentence because two paragraphs of the protective order were vague, and because Keller erroneously concluded that the whistle-blower was motivated by ego when he gave the files to a reporter.

The appellate judges -- Alfred T. Goodwin, Pamela A. Rymer and M. Margaret McKeown -- sent the case back to Keller for resentencing, hinting strongly that Mullally should not be imprisoned:

"We ... note that the government advised the district court that sentencing Mullally to imprisonment would be extreme, and that some term of probation would be appropriate given the circumstances. We are confident that the district court will give serious consideration to this recommendation on remand."

Mullally, who now works as a substitute teacher in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, said he was "grateful" that the 9th Circuit Court vacated the jail sentence. But he said he remained disturbed by the idea that "it's OK for a federal judge to hide evidence of felony crimes with the application of a protective order."

New York University law professor Stephen Gillers, an expert on court procedures, applauded the ruling.

"Sending [Mullally] to jail would be spiteful and unnecessary," Gillers said. Though there are valid reasons for courts to enforce protective orders, Mullally's actions "corrected a malfunction" in how the LAPD deals with domestic violence, Gillers said. "That ought to count for something" when it comes to sentencing, he said.

The U.S. attorney's office declined to comment. No date has been set for the resentencing hearing.

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