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'Get up' or 'Don't get up'? Video key to trial

Dark footage of deputy shooting airman makes for ambiguities that will challenge jurors.

May 20, 2007|Maeve Reston | Times Staff Writer

A bystander's dark, jittery video will allow a San Bernardino County jury to witness a sheriff's deputy opening fire on an unarmed off-duty airman, and to stop, pause and rewind the frenzy that ended with three muzzle flashes and the deputy on trial this week for attempted voluntary manslaughter.

The district attorney thought the digital video recording, shot after a high-speed chase through Montclair and Chino in January 2006, was such damning evidence that Deputy Ivory John Webb Jr. became the first law enforcement officer ever charged in an on-duty shooting in the county.

But jurors may not be as convinced. With television and the Internet awash in raw, amateur video, from Osama bin Laden's terrorist rants broadcast on Al Jazeera to the fictional lonelygirl15 videos on YouTube, audiences have become more skeptical and sophisticated about the images they see, and more open to alternative interpretations, legal and film experts say.

"We know historically that documentary film is dominated by the voice -- that we're very prone to follow what it is that we are being told about what we are seeing," said Michael Renov, a documentary scholar at the University of Southern California's School of Cinematic Arts.

This especially could be true about the video recording in Webb's trial, and the battle between the prosecution and defense: "The lawyer gets to provide the voice-over," he said.

After watching the video of the Chino shooting, Renov drew a parallel to Akira Kurosawa's 1950 film "Rashomon." In that famous Japanese film, an event was shown from different perspectives and narrated by different characters, who each gave plausible explanations of what had transpired.

The low lighting, scant detail and shaky camera in the Chino shooting footage, Renov said, could play into the personal fears of members of the jury as they try to put themselves in Webb's shoes to determine whether he committed a crime.

"It's all dark, it's murky, it's hard to know what's going on," Renov said. "The less clear-cut the image ... the more possibilities there are for creating a compelling narrative that can help make the case you want it to make."

Webb, who left the San Bernardino County Sheriff's Department last year, is set to go on trial Monday for attempted voluntary manslaughter and assault with a firearm for shooting Elio Carrion, an Air Force police officer who was home on leave after duty in Iraq.

On the night of Jan. 29, an intoxicated Carrion was a passenger in a Corvette that led Webb on a high-speed chase that reached 120 mph through residential neighborhoods, ending when the Corvette crashed into a fence and Carrion jumped out of the car and onto the ground.

Both the prosecutor and defense counsel declined to discuss how they would lay out their cases over the next month. But in the preliminary hearing, they framed their questions about the video on the differing perspectives of the deputy, Carrion and Jose Luis Valdes, who shot the footage from his garden.

Valdes ran outside with his Sony camera after hearing the Corvette slam into a wall across from his house.

In the critical minute and 15 seconds on Valdes' recording, Carrion is seen lying on the ground but with his upper body raised and twisted toward Webb and his face illuminated by the flashlight.

The driver of the Corvette, Luis Escobedo, is still in the car and not visible, but he can be heard shouting at Webb. Webb stands over Carrion with his gun drawn, repeatedly shouting expletive-laced commands to Carrion and Escobedo to "Shut up!"

One of the pivotal arguments in the trial will be over the movement of Carrion's hands in those tense seconds.

In the video, Carrion is seen raising his left hand toward Webb at least twice; in a preliminary hearing Carrion said he was trying to shield his face from Webb's flashlight. Then Carrion appears to use his right hand to gesture as he tells Webb several times, "We're here on your side" and "We mean you no harm."

In the final seconds before the shooting, Carrion tells Webb he is in the military.

"I served more time than you ... you have to believe me, all right?" Carrion says.

Webb tells Carrion to keep his hands on the ground. Then, according to the district attorney, Webb tells Carrion to "get up." When Carrion says, "OK, I'm getting up," Webb shoots him three times.

Laurie Levenson, a professor at Loyola Law School, said that after watching the video nearly 30 times she was still noticing movements by Carrion for the first time.

"What I see are still a lot of open questions," she said. "The jurors are really being asked to put themselves in the officer's shoes.

"He is dealing with someone from the military," Levenson said. "They're not cooperating.... [Webb is] outgunned and outnumbered.... Much of this just cuts both ways."

Another critical task for the jury will be to determine exactly what Webb's orders were in those final seconds.

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