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Fame and Fortune, Law and Order Were Themes

REFLECTIONS ON 2003: LAW ENFORCEMENT

Celebrities fended off accusations and the U.S. Supreme Court derailed old cases against priests.

December 27, 2003|Richard Winton | Times Staff Writer

The year 2003 proved to be one where the famous became the accused, an ex-New York police commissioner took the spotlight at the LAPD and homicides in the City of Angels dropped by nearly a quarter. All this while an FBI probe into eavesdropping by Hollywood's top private investigator became the buzz of Tinseltown.

In a year when mega-movie star Arnold Schwarzenegger was the voters' choice for governor -- and even the new Los Angeles police chief ran with the Hollywood crowd -- fame and fortune seemed to go with law and order.

The gloved one became the cuffed one as the self-proclaimed King of Pop, Michael Jackson, was charged with molesting a 12-year-old boy at his Santa Barbara County ranch. Jackson's lawyer said a greedy family and a district attorney with an "ax to grind" are behind the charges.

Laker star Kobe Bryant is dividing his time between two courts -- one criminal, one basketball -- after prosecutors charged him with raping a woman in July at a Colorado resort where she worked. His defense: It was adultery, but consensual.

And famed music producer Phil Spector faces the prospect of life in prison if convicted of murdering actress Lana Clarkson on Feb. 3 in his Alhambra mansion's foyer. Free on $1-million bail, Spector insists that the actress shot herself, despite allegedly telling his driver that night that he had just killed someone.

The fate of actor Robert Blake might play out in February after a judge found there was sufficient evidence for him to stand trial for capital murder in the killing two years ago of his wife, Bonny Lee Bakley, near a Studio City restaurant.

A judge made a similar ruling in the case of Scott Peterson, saying the Modesto man should be tried for the murder of his wife, Laci Peterson, and the son she was carrying. His trial could start in January.

Perhaps the Southland's biggest mystery in 2003 surrounded Anthony Pellicano, the private investigator at the center of a federal investigation into his alleged illegal wiretapping in the entertainment business.

FBI agents have interviewed dozens of Hollywood people and lawyers -- and some prosecutors and cops -- to determine if the P.I. to the stars conducted illegal wiretaps on behalf of lawyers or clients. At least one prominent lawyer, Bert Fields, is a subject of the investigation.

Pellicano, who has vowed to remain silent about his clients, began serving a federal prison term last month related to explosives that FBI agents recovered from his office during a raid. That search took place after an informant connected him to a threat against a Los Angeles Times reporter.

The Pellicano case and others may have attracted headlines, but none of those high-profile cases had the widespread impact of a U.S. Supreme Court ruling in June that the state violated the U.S. Constitution when it passed a law to allow criminal prosecutions in sexual-abuse cases that occurred long ago.

The ruling affected about 800 cases statewide involving convicted molesters, alleged molesters whose charges were pending, and some who had confessed. The best known of the cases that were subsequently dismissed involved more than 20 Roman Catholic priests who had been charged statewide with crimes dating back more than 15 years.

Los Angeles County Deputy Dist. Atty. William Hodgman, head of the sex crimes unit, said his office is still working to sort out which cases are affected by the court's ruling. "Thankfully, many of those in prison will remain there because they faced new as well as older charges," he said.

One retired priest wasn't so lucky. Michael Wempe, after having charges related to sexual abuse in the 1980s dropped, was arrested again in September for allegedly abusing a teenage boy in the 1990s. Many other alleged victims of priests chose to seek redress with civil suits against the Archdiocese of Los Angeles.

Meanwhile, a few blocks from the new downtown Catholic cathedral, at Los Angeles Police Department headquarters, William J. Bratton presided during his first year as police chief over what some characterized as a miraculous turnaround after two years in which crime had gone up.

Homicides were down 23% in 2003, violent crime down 6% and arrests up 11%, despite Bratton's losing an acrimonious summer budget fight with the City Council over his plan to hire 320 more officers.

After he was hired, Bratton quickly restructured the LAPD's leadership, assigned detectives to work nights and weekends when violent crimes are at their worst, and sent more officers to South Los Angeles to tackle gang-related violence that has taken the lives of many young Latino and African American men.

Much of the change came as Bratton's selection gave morale a much-needed boost after the Rampart corruption scandal. And Bratton vows that he won't be a one-year wonder.

"I had a year to work with people, get a sense of what their strengths and skills were," Bratton said. "So, going into my second year ... I can capitalize on their skills."

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