False testimony by a Los Angeles police officer led a judge on Monday to throw out a case against a man accused of attempted murder -- the second time in recent months that an LAPD officer's testimony has torpedoed a prosecution.
Saul Eady, who has spent three years in custody, was released Monday after Los Angeles County Superior Court Judge William Sterling granted a request from the district attorney's office to dismiss the case. The abrupt ending came after Eady's lawyer confronted the prosecution's key witness, Det. David Friedrich, with Los Angeles Police Department radio recordings that contradicted Friedrich's account of a stakeout.
Michael Yglecias, the head deputy district attorney involved in the decision to seek the dismissal, said he did not believe Friedrich had intentionally lied on the stand. He attributed the contradictions to "faulty recollections" and the officer's poor documentation of the incident -- documentation that omitted crucial details.
"I believe this officer did the best he could, but unfortunately mistakes were made and we lacked confidence in the persuasiveness of our case," Yglecias said. "We still have a belief in Eady's guilt, which made for an agonizing decision."
For The Record
Los Angeles Times Saturday, August 23, 2008 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 1 inches; 49 words Type of Material: Correction
Police testimony: In some editions of Tuesday's California section, a headline on an article about the dismissal of a criminal case because of false testimony by a Los Angeles police officer described the charge against the defendant as murder. The defendant, Saul Eady, had been charged with attempted murder.
Greg Apt, Eady's attorney, was far more critical, accusing Friedrich in court of lying on the stand.
"I expect that there will be shades of the truth told in a trial," Apt said in an interview. "But we rely on certain foundational things -- that someone is not going to tell a straight-out lie. This is very frustrating and disturbing."
In May 2005, the LAPD's Special Investigation Section, an elite group of plainclothes detectives, received a tip that several men were plotting to use a van to carry out a string of crimes. Eady and another man, Justin Montgomery, were said to be members of the group. Friedrich staked out the van on August Street in Baldwin Hills in a surveillance vehicle while other members of the unit waited in cars nearby.
On May 9, three men drove the van into an alley to confront a suspected gang rival and opened fire. They missed their target, raced back to the Baldwin Hills neighborhood and went into an apartment building. Police locked down the street and searched the building but found none of the suspects. Eady and Montgomery were arrested days later.
At a preliminary hearing, and later at the trial, the prosecution relied heavily on Friedrich's testimony to prove the men's involvement. Friedrich told jurors that he had seen Eady and Montgomery enter the van, saw Montgomery behind the steering wheel as he made a left turn and saw two men who appeared to be Eady and Montgomery flee after the van returned.
Jurors were evenly split in Eady's first trial, which ended in a hung jury. Montgomery was convicted and sentenced to life in prison.
The district attorney's office decided to retry Eady. As part of his preparation for the second trial, Apt subpoenaed the LAPD for any audio recordings of radio communications made during the incident. He received three hours of recordings from the radio channel used by the detectives.
The tapes, Apt said, lay out a different and far more confusing story than the one Friedrich told in court. In the recordings, Friedrich, an officer overhead in a helicopter and others on the ground tried to keep tabs on several men who were milling about and getting into and out of the van.
Friedrich, Apt said, never positively identified Eady on the tapes, telling other officers that one of the men dressed in a gray hooded sweatshirt and jeans "could be Eady." Friedrich also expressed confusion on the tapes about whether the men they thought were Eady and Montgomery had exited the van before it left August Street, while the officer in the helicopter is heard saying at one point that the men had, in fact, "unloaded," or gotten out of the van. The tapes also revealed that the van did not make a left turn as Friedrich had testified, raising doubts about how he could have seen Montgomery behind the wheel.
Last week, the detective took the stand again in Eady's second trial and repeated his earlier version of what he saw. On Thursday, during cross-examination, Apt asked Friedrich if he would expect recordings of the incident to support his account. Hilary Williams, the prosecutor in the case, asked for a recess. After listening to the tapes over the weekend and discussing it with Yglecias, she returned to court Monday and requested the dismissal.
LAPD Deputy Chief Charlie Beck, who oversees the department's detectives, said he had directed his staff to do "a complete review" of the case.
Montgomery's lawyer, Dale Atherton, said the tapes undermine his client's conviction. Atherton says he plans to argue Montgomery's release from prison.
"He was calm, he was cool, he appeared totally credible," Atherton recalled of Friedrich's testimony. "He spoke right into the microphone and lied. He didn't blink."
Steve Meister, a lawyer provided for Friedrich by the police union, strenuously disputed those comments, saying that "No amount of chest-pounding and assertions . . . are going to make David Friedrich into a liar."
Eady's case echoes that of Guillermo Alarcon Jr., a grocery store worker who was exonerated of drug possession charges last month after his lawyer turned up a security tape that contradicted the LAPD officers' account.