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Oakland Jittery as Police Trial Drags On

September 18, 2003|Carol Pogash and John M. Glionna | Special to The Times

OAKLAND — In this heavily African American city plagued by spiraling crime and a record murder rate, the yearlong trial of three veteran police officers accused of beating and framing black suspects has set residents, civic leaders and police on edge.

The trial of the officers -- nicknamed the Riders -- has lasted so long that one juror and the wife of one of the defendants became pregnant and gave birth. And still the lawyers battled. The seven-man, five-woman panel, which has been deliberating since May, has become the longest-sitting jury in local history, and it has sent scores of notes to the judge seeking judicial guidance.

Jurors returned to court last week deadlocked on 27 of 35 charges but Alameda Superior Court Judge Leo Dorado ordered them to return to their task -- causing one female juror to burst into tears. Frayed tempers among the panel had already prompted Dorado to warn against "name-calling, rudeness or antisocial behavior."

At issue are the actions of a clique of four graveyard-shift police officers who, over 10 days in the summer of 2000, made a series of allegedly illegal arrests in the city's tough northwest corner. The case has been compared to the Los Angeles Police Department's Rampart corruption scandal. But Riders prosecutor David Hollister has his own analogy: He likens the officers' conduct to "characters in a Dirty Harry film."

All the officers have been fired. Three -- Matthew Hornung, 31; Clarence Mabanag, 37; and Jude Siapno, 34 -- are being tried on charges including kidnapping, falsifying arrest reports and assault. They have been accused of beating a handcuffed suspect in the face, stomach, back and legs. They face lengthy prison terms if convicted on even some of the charges. Frank "Choker" Vazquez, 46, the alleged ringleader of the Riders, has fled and is being sought by the FBI.

The three Riders were arrested in November 2000 after 23-year-old Keith Batt, a rookie officer who was teamed with Mabanag for field training, quit the force and reported the alleged incidents to police officials.

The three officers pleaded not guilty and their lawyers claimed they were essentially good cops, undermined by Batt, whom one attorney referred to as a "sniper," a barely competent officer who feared he would be fired and betrayed his fellow officers to secure favor among department brass.

Batt, now an officer on a small suburban force in nearby Pleasanton, declined to comment.

And still Oakland waits. Even city bus drivers passing the courthouse throw open their doors and inquire about a verdict -- calling the news back to waiting passengers.

With a decision expected within days, police worry that not-guilty verdicts could spark riots.

Police have asked nearby departments to provide reinforcements if needed and Chief Richard Word has approached community leaders for support. Dorado has sealed the eight verdicts reached by the jury so far.

For some, race has played a key role in the trial. While none of the officers charged is black, all of the victims are. And in a city of 395,000 residents -- nearly 38% African American -- no blacks sit on the jury.

Officials say the panel was drawn from Alameda County, whose population is 14% African American. But the racial makeup of the panel -- which includes a nuclear physicist, a law student and a university librarian -- has further fueled speculation that not-guilty verdicts could be met with violence, officials say.

Legal experts say the case has national significance.

"It is an enormously important trial for California and the nation," said Peter Keane, dean of Golden Gate University Law School. "Any time you have outlaw cops, particularly as they're alleged to be in this situation, it is vital for the integrity of the justice system to go ahead and punish them or come up with a result that says it didn't happen."

With budgets already stretched and homicides up 10% over last year, the city was sent into further disarray by the allegations of police wrongdoing. Prosecutors were forced to dismiss charges against 100 people arrested by the Riders. Earlier this year, the city paid $10.9 million to settle a civil lawsuit filed by 119 people who were allegedly beaten and falsely arrested by the four officers.

In an interview, Hollister speculated that the jury may have become stymied over the issue of "noble cause corruption." In a city battling rising crime, he said, the jury may find it hard to convict officers who employed "street justice" to make arrests. Rather than personal gain, the theory goes, the officers acted in an overzealous manner to carry out orders of reducing street crime.

"Our victims in this case were not going to church at 2 a.m." when the arrests took place, said Hollister, now a prosecutor in Plumas County. "They were doing things -- possibly illegal things." To make sure the arrests stuck, he said, the officers doctored reports to make sure they got convictions.

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