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3 Former Oakland Officers Acquitted of Some Charges

But the jury in the yearlong trial deadlocks on 27 counts in the police-abuse case.

October 01, 2003|Lee Romney, John M. Glionna | Special to The Times

OAKLAND — A jury Tuesday acquitted three former police officers on charges of beating and framing suspects and deadlocked on 27 other counts, bringing an inconclusive end to the longest criminal trial in Alameda County history.

The conclusion to the yearlong case, likened by one legal expert to "a Rodney King verdict without the riots," may cement anti-police sentiment in Oakland's most crime-plagued neighborhoods.

A community concern was that none of the jurors were black but all of the alleged victims were black.

The jurors, at times angry and tearful, had been deliberating since May and on three occasions told Superior Court Judge Leo Dorado that they remained hopelessly deadlocked. He sent them back each time.

On Tuesday, Dorado relented. He accepted the impasse and allowed the beleaguered jurors to leave the courthouse guarded by bailiffs.

"It was my view from the get-go they would fight," defense attorney Mike Rains said of the jurors. "They would feud and they would hang, and I thought that was probably the best we could see."

On the advice of their lawyers, the defendants, Matthew Hornung, 31, Clarence Mabanag, 37, and Jude Siapno, 34, showed no emotion during the brief court session.

Authorities believe Frank "Choker" Vazquez, 46, the officers' alleged ringleader, has fled the country.

The trial focused on a 10-day period in the summer of 2000 in which the four graveyard-shift officers, known as the Riders, made allegedly illegal arrests in the city's tough northwest corner.

The three officers were arrested after 23-year-old Keith Batt, a rookie officer who was teamed with Mabanag for field training, reported the alleged incidents to police officials before quitting the force.

The officers, one white and two Asian, faced lengthy prison sentences had they been convicted on charges that including kidnapping and falsifying arrest reports -- and beating a handcuffed suspect in the face, stomach, back and legs. They were compared by prosecutors during the trial to "characters in a 'Dirty Harry' film."

Court Date

Jurors on Tuesday found Siapno not guilty of kidnapping and beating, Mabanag not guilty of presenting three false claims, and all three note guilty of conspiring to falsely arrest a suspect.

Though prosecutors were granted an Oct. 15 court date to make their next move, they said they had not yet decided whether to retry the officers.

Kevin V. Ryan, U.S. attorney for the Northern District of California, said in a statement that the Justice Department would consult with the district attorney and explore the possibility of filing federal civil rights charges against the officers.

Former Alameda County Assistant Dist. Atty. David Hollister, who prosecuted the Riders, said he was disappointed by the outcome. "I thought factually these defendants were guilty," he said. "I think the evidence proved that."

Mayor Jerry Brown said the hung jury "pretty well represented the division within the city of Oakland. No group of people in America know more about the Riders' case than the jury. And they came to their conclusion."

Oakland police were primed for street unrest after the verdict. Though no trouble was reported, reactions ranged from fury to disbelief. One person was arrested at Tuesday's hearing, an African American observer who shouted his disapproval before being led away in handcuffs.

"Arrest me. Take me to jail," the man shouted, glaring at the defendants. "You won't take them to jail."

To many blacks in the city -- which is about 38% African American -- Tuesday's conclusion was a blanket exoneration of police misconduct.

"The message is: If you wear the badge, you can get away with some things," said Carrie McGathon, an Oakland nurse who said she feared for her grandchildren's safety because of corrupt cops.

"I think it's absolutely imperative that they should spend some time in prison. They did many black men wrong," she said.

Peter Keane, dean of Golden Gate University Law School, said "the kind of conduct that occurred and the kind of evidence that was presented" was comparable to the Rodney King beating case. But given the criminal records of key prosecution witnesses, jurors could not clear the "beyond a reasonable doubt" hurdle necessary to convict.

"It is problematic," Keane said. "I think you'll still have a festering discontent on the part of the Oakland minority communities that there are two standards of justice -- one for members of their community and the other for police officers."

The seven-man, five-woman panel was drawn from Alameda County, whose population is 14% African American. McGathon, among others, said she believed that the absence of blacks on the jury affected the outcome.

Jurors had reached conclusions on only four counts when they first tried to end deliberations. They managed to reach not-guilty verdicts on four more counts and had been stuck in that holding pattern since Sept. 11, despite the judge's insistence on two occasions that they persevere.

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