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Police brutality trial reopens

First jury deadlocked in case of a Maywood officer who is accused of beating a suspect.

June 10, 2008|Jack Leonard | Times Staff Writer

This much is clear: Jose Bernal had barely a scratch when he arrived in handcuffs at the Maywood police station escorted by two officers on a May evening in 2004.

But within 10 minutes, the 30-year-old was receiving treatment from paramedics and slipping in and out of consciousness. His nose was broken. His face was partially paralyzed. And blood trickled down his cheeks and chin.

In a rare criminal case accusing an on-duty cop of assault, prosecutors told jurors Monday that Michael Joseph Singleton, then a Maywood police officer, beat Bernal in retaliation for a stream of insults and then lied about the attack in a police report.

The trial marks a test case for the Los Angeles County district attorney's office, which has struggled in trials involving police brutality allegations. Earlier this year, a jury deadlocked on the charges against Singleton, with nine jurors in favor of an acquittal.

Key to the case is the testimony of a former Maywood trainee officer who said he watched Singleton punch the prisoner several times and smash his head into a wall. Prosecutors contend that footage from a surveillance camera that caught a small portion of the incident contradicts the version of events Singleton gave his supervisors.

"He basically put Mr. Bernal's head into a wall because he disrespected him," Deputy Dist. Atty. Margo Baxter told jurors during opening arguments.

But Singleton, 43, denies using excessive force and insists Bernal kicked him and tried to head-butt and bite him as he walked the prisoner to jail. As the two men tussled, Singleton's defense attorney said, the officer grabbed the prisoner around the neck and both men lost their balance and fell into the wall, Bernal head-first.

"There was no gratuitous ramming of Mr. Bernal's head into the wall in an effort to injure him," attorney Michael P. Stone told jurors. "This was not a crime."

Winning police brutality trials has long proved a challenge for the L.A. County district attorney's office.

In 1992, a Simi Valley jury acquitted four Los Angeles police officers charged in the videotaped beating of black motorist Rodney King, touching off days of rioting. A decade later, two separate juries deadlocked on assault charges against a former Inglewood police officer who was videotaped punching a 16-year-old boy and slamming him onto the hood of a patrol car.

Accused officers often argue that video evidence doesn't tell the back story to a violent episode or what the officer was thinking during a confrontation. And defense attorneys usually try to cast doubt on the testimony of alleged victims, who rarely step into court with unblemished criminal records.

"These cases are difficult to win," said Merrick Bobb, a Los Angeles lawyer who helps monitor and give guidance to police departments around the country. "Jurors tend to give police officers the benefit of the doubt."

In March, the district attorney's office won a rare victory when a jury convicted San Fernando Police Officer Ricardo Curiel of misdemeanor assault for using a Taser on a teenage boy in custody. The conviction followed a trial that had ended in a hung jury. Curiel was sentenced to 30 days in jail.

The stakes are higher for Singleton, who was fired from the Maywood Police Department and faces a possible prison sentence if convicted of felony assault and perjury charges.

On Monday the stocky former officer, who now works for a bail bond company, sat in a dark blue suit and showed little emotion as the attorneys outlined their arguments.

Singleton had just begun training a probationary officer, Joseph Densmore, when the two were called to a neighborhood disturbance on May 13, 2004. The officers found Bernal had been fighting with a neighbor and took him into custody. Bernal's injuries amounted to little more than some blood in his ear and a small amount in his nose.

Bernal -- provoked by another officer at the scene -- hurled profanities at Singleton and Densmore and spat at the officers as they transported him to jail. By the time the patrol car arrived, Bernal had calmed down but Singleton was furious, Baxter said.

When Bernal got out, Singleton pushed him up against a wall and then marched him toward the jail's entrance, Baxter said.

The assault, she said, took place out of view of a nearby surveillance camera, which had recorded footage of the first few moments after the officers and Bernal arrived.

Baxter said footage showed that Bernal had not resisted, undermining the version of events Singleton gave his supervisors. Densmore testified Monday that Singleton upbraided him after the confrontation for not getting his "hands dirty" and wrote out a version of events for Densmore to use when writing his police report.

"It is impossible for the incident to have gone down the way Singleton said it went down," Baxter told jurors.

But Singleton's attorney during the last trial noted that Densmore initially gave supervisors a version of events that matched Singleton's, but changed his mind a day later after Singleton complained that he was not safe to work with.

Densmore has contended in a federal civil lawsuit that he was fired from the Maywood Police Department after reporting Singleton. The suit was dismissed; Densmore has appealed.

On Monday, Stone told jurors that the still-image camera footage is far from perfect but does show Bernal resisting and kicking over a stop sign.

Bernal, Stone said, has a history of violence and resisting police officers and repeatedly challenged Singleton and Densmore that evening to a fight.

Singleton, the attorney said, was doing the best he could to control a violent suspect as the trainee officer watched rather than helped.

"Mr. Bernal could have stopped with his violence, his attitude," Stone said, "and none of this would have happened."


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