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Airman's family urges U.S. charges against ex-deputy

But experts say the jury's rapid acquittal in the Chino shooting makes a federal case unlikely.

June 30, 2007|Maeve Reston | Times Staff Writer

Just hours after a San Bernardino County jury's acquittal Thursday of a former sheriff's deputy in the videotaped shooting of an Air Force enlisted man, the airman's family called on the U.S. attorney's office to pursue civil rights violation charges against Webb.

But a number of legal experts said the swift acquittal of Ivory John Webb Jr., coupled with the absence of allegations of racism, made federal charges unlikely.

"It is rare for federal authorities to bring the same or similar criminal charges after an acquittal in state court," said Rebecca Lonergan, a USC law professor and former federal prosecutor. "You do have well-established policies in place that there is presumption against filing the same charges federally."

But Lonergan, until recently deputy chief of the public corruption and civil rights section of the U.S. attorney's office in Los Angeles, noted that federal officials do make exceptions -- as they did when they pursued charges against the four Los Angeles police officers involved in the 1991 beating of Rodney King.

Federal prosecutors take particular care in investigating public corruption cases in which there are potential civil rights violations, she said. They examine potential flaws in the prosecution's strategy, or any ties between prosecutors and law enforcement that could have affected the case.

The King case was unusual, however, because it went to federal court in the wake of the riots and public outrage after the acquittal of the four officers by a Simi Valley jury, Los Angeles-based attorney Harland Braun said.

"The decision to prosecute someone a second time is a purely political decision," said Braun, former attorney for LAPD officer Theodore Briseno, who was acquitted in the federal King case.

Federal prosecutors "will look at it and see if there was a miscarriage of justice," Braun said of the Webb case. "But if the trial was well-conducted and there was a reasonable result, they are probably going to decline to prosecute the case."

Webb's acquittal Thursday cleared the way for the civil lawsuit that Senior Airman Elio Carrion has filed in federal court against Webb, San Bernardino County and its Sheriff's Department.

A federal judge had placed a temporary stay on the proceedings pending the resolution of the criminal case.

The confrontation between Carrion and Webb occurred on a residential street in Chino in January 2006. Carrion had been a passenger in a Corvette that had led Webb on a 100-mph chase and then crashed.

Carrion and the Corvette's driver were intoxicated, and Carrion disobeyed orders from Webb, who was alone, to keep his hands on the ground and be quiet.

In a bystander's video of the incident, Webb is seen firing on Carrion after apparently ordering the airman to "get up" from a sprawled position on the ground.

The San Bernardino County jury acquitted Webb of attempted voluntary manslaughter and assault with a firearm, charges that could have put him in prison for more than 18 years if convicted.

Carrion, who spent months in physical therapy recovering from the bullet wounds to his chest, leg and shoulder, testified that he cannot resume patrol duties as a military police officer because of the injuries.

The airman, based at Barksdale Air Force Base in Louisiana, is seeking unlimited damages in the suit.

In the civil complaint, Carrion's attorney accuses Webb of trying to kill Carrion and covering up evidence by dragging Carrion away from the location where he was shot into the street.

Carrion's lawsuit also alleges that county officials delayed medical treatment to Carrion -- treating him "as if he were a criminal suspect and not a military hero."

Webb's attorney in the civil suit, as well as the attorney representing the county and Sheriff's Department, said Webb's acquittal bolstered their position in the civil suit.

"Members of the community took the time to evaluate what was going on and they determined his actions were indeed reasonable," said Eugene Ramirez, Webb's attorney.

San Bernardino County Sheriff Gary Penrod defended his department Friday as one of the best in the country and said the Webb shooting was one of the most difficult incidents the department had ever faced.

"I truly believe our deputies go to work every day with the intentions of doing the best job they possibly can to make our community safer, with no intent of hurting anyone in the course of their duties," Penrod said.

The sheriff has declined to say whether Webb was fired last year or left the department on his own accord. He said Friday that he did not know if Webb was seeking a law enforcement job, but that he would not be reinstated at the San Bernardino County department.

Penrod said he had spoken to Webb several times since his departure and did not think there were "bad feelings" between Webb and the department.

"He's part of our family," Penrod said. "Everybody was pretty thrilled" with the acquittal.

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maeve.reston@latimes.com

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