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No Closure at End of Police Trial

Some jurors and Oakland officials are outraged after acquittals in the 'Riders' abuse case. Panelists say deliberations were tense.

October 07, 2003|Carol Pogash | Special to The Times

OAKLAND — Days after a yearlong, much-anticipated police abuse trial ended here last week, half a dozen jurors, the vice mayor and other civic leaders are calling for a retrial in the case against three former police officers.

"The people of Oakland deserved answers," one exhausted juror said. "After all this time, we're right back where we started from."

These are unsettling times for this stepsister of a city. Many waited months for a verdict in the case that ended with the acquittals of the officers on charges of beating and framing suspects and a mistrial on 27 others.

The trial confronted the prickly issues of race, of the police, and of justice granted or perhaps denied. And many African Americans saw the trial as a stark reminder of how little has changed.

Since the case ended last Tuesday, many jurors have been speaking out about the tone and tenor of their deliberations. They, along with the city's vice mayor and numerous leaders of the black community, are calling on the district attorney to retry the case.

An Oct. 15 court date has been set for prosecutors to announce their decision on whether to seek another trial.

Shortly after the trial and verdicts, Mayor Jerry Brown suggested that the fractured jury reflects the division in his city. The acrimony in the confines of the jury room could be viewed as an example of that divide.

Jurors said that during the 55 days of deliberations, exchanges grew so bitter that threats were made and doors slammed. One member was ostracized for speaking out. Sides were taken. Some jurors refused lunch rather than be forced to socialize with the others.

Three ex-police officers -- Clarence Mabanag, Jude Siapno and Matthew Hornung -- were found not guilty on eight charges. A fourth officer, Francisco Vazquez, fled and is believed to have escaped to Mexico. The four were known as the Riders, a moniker they chose. The jury of eight whites, two Latinos, one Asian, one Hawaiian and no African Americans could not agree on 27 other charges, ranging from kidnapping to planting drugs on suspects.

The case stemmed from a 10-day period in the summer of 2000 in which the graveyard-shift officers made allegedly illegal arrests in the city's tough northwest corner.

Witnesses for the prosecution included a rookie police officer and convicted drug dealers.

Frustrated by the mix of personalities, one juror who led the unsuccessful fight to convict the former officers said: "You're embarrassed. You know this is happening to the black community. You know there are resentments against false arrests and false charges. People spend time in jail for this." The juror, a nuclear engineer, added: "And you're ashamed."

John Burris, an attorney who won a nearly $11-million civil suit against the police on behalf of 119 victims, said the message is that African Americans "are not going to get justice from the various systems that are supposed to give justice: the police and the court system."

The jurors interviewed for this story asked that their names not be used for fear of retaliation.

In interviews, jurors said anger "ratcheted up almost immediately. There was a suppressed air of hostility in the room" that reminded a librarian juror "of a pack of dogs wandering around and a couple of them get in a fight."

The tension began almost at the start, when, by default, the jury elected the only person who wanted to be foreman, a night law school student. "Once they tried to establish ground rules, it started to go downhill," said another juror, an arborist, who considered himself one of six jurors in the middle.

Immediately, several jurors said the foreman, the youngest member of the jury, approached the blackboard and chalked a line down the middle scrawling the word "civil" on one side and "criminal" on the other. Lecturing his fellow jurors, he talked about reasonable doubt, concluding that guilt had not been proved on any of the counts.

"We were shocked," said one juror.

For the rest of the deliberations, the foreman remained an unyielding advocate for the former cops.

"He had adopted the cause of the defendants and was advocating for their exoneration," the engineer said. "All his efforts were in service to that end. He was making an absolute mockery and rendering futile all our efforts."

The jury foreman did not respond to requests for an interview.

The atmosphere grew even more tense when he was joined by an outspoken juror nicknamed "the cowboy" because he read magazines about horses, and by an unemployed woman whose anger toward fellow jurors frightened many of them. The trio was nicknamed "the three musketeers." At various times, the woman threatened to go to the judge and provide information that would force a mistrial. Other times, the woman passively painted her nails or read Cosmopolitan magazine while other jurors discussed the evidence.

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