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LAPD cop allegedly tainted jurors

The officer is accused of telling alternates about a defendant's criminal record after testifying in his trial.

December 12, 2008|Jack Leonard | Leonard is a Times staff writer.

A 20-year veteran Los Angeles police officer has been accused of jury tampering after he approached two alternate jurors during deliberations in a robbery trial and told them about the defendant's long criminal history, court records show.

A Los Angeles County district attorney's spokeswoman said the office is considering criminal charges against Officer Dominick Fuentes, who had testified in the trial a day before he allegedly spoke to the jurors.

The alternate jurors complained to a judge earlier this year that Fuentes had approached them in the hallway of a downtown Los Angeles courthouse and told them that evidence showed the defendant was clearly guilty, according to court records.

One of the jurors said Fuentes held up a hand while discussing the defendant's past crimes and said, "Do you see the number of fingers I have? He's done many more times than that."

The defendant's criminal history was never introduced as evidence in the trial.

Superior Court Judge Sam Ohta ruled that the officer's comments did not influence the rest of the jury, which was deliberating behind closed doors at the time. Ohta apologized to the alternate jurors and described the episode as "disturbing." He excused the pair, ruling that the officer's contact affected their ability to decide the case impartially.

The jury later acquitted the defendant, Ralph Leon Robinson, of robbery but convicted him of attempted robbery and grand theft. Robinson, 49, was sentenced to 35 years to life in prison.

LAPD Deputy Chief Kenny Garner said that the department has launched an internal affairs investigation into the allegations and that Fuentes has been reassigned from patrol until the probe is finished.

Garner said officers are warned during training to avoid contact with jurors or alternate jurors, who often sit outside the courtroom during deliberations in case one of the 12 members on the main panel needs to be replaced.

"It's common sense and it's our training that it's inappropriate and improper to discuss the case with any jurors while the case is still in trial," Garner said.

The L.A. County public defender's office has accused Fuentes in court papers of trying "to subvert justice" and asked Ohta to unseal the names of the alternate jurors so that defense attorneys can call them as witnesses to testify about Fuentes in other cases involving the officer. Ohta ruled last week that he would contact the two jurors to determine whether they object to their identities being disclosed.

"It's outrageous," said Deputy Public Defender Randall Rich. "There's no other way to couch it."

District attorney spokeswoman Jane Robison said the office's Justice System Integrity Division is reviewing whether to file jury tampering charges against Fuentes.

Fuentes could not be reached for comment.

Robinson's criminal record extends back decades. In 1982, he was convicted of robbing a market using a starter pistol, according to court records. Four years later, he was convicted of 19 armed robberies at local fast food restaurants and was sentenced to 30 years in prison. He was released on parole last year.

In January, workers at a McDonald's restaurant in South Los Angeles identified Robinson as the man who grabbed money from the eatery's cash registers and threatened them, pretending he had a gun. The assailant fled with $10 to $15.

Fuentes and another officer arrested Robinson soon afterward about a block away.

At Robinson's trial, the jury began deliberating early on Aug. 8. The two alternates waited on benches in the hallway outside the courtroom. In the afternoon, the alternate jurors notified the court that Fuentes had approached them. The jurors said they had told him they were alternates and were wearing their "juror" identification badges at the time.

"How do you think it's going to go?" one of them said Fuentes asked, according to a court transcript of her interview with the judge. She said the officer gave them a thumbs up and thumbs down signal.

She said she and the other alternate juror looked at each other and tried to ignore the question but Fuentes continued talking.

"He's a career criminal. He's done this lots of times," she said Fuentes told them. "This is just another incident."

She said Fuentes told them that there was clear evidence to convict Robinson of robbery.

The juror said she was stunned. Both alternates said the episode would not prevent them from making an impartial decision if they replaced one of the 12 other jurors.

"What he said was inappropriate and, if anything . . . it makes me question anything else he said," the one juror told Ohta. "Somebody in a role that that officer is in who would engage in that type of behavior is doing things that are unethical."

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jack.leonard@latimes.com

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