By Hillel Aron
By Joseph Tsidulko
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|Photo by Nick Ut|
That strategy will be tested next week in the first criminal case brought against other officers from the Rampart division. Officers Brian Liddy and Paul Harper and Sergeant Eddie Ortiz face felony charges of conspiracy for framing Allan Manrique Lobos in 1996. Perez said the officers planted a gun on Lobos after breaking up a party staged by 18th Street Gang members.
Prosecutors say they will present a range of evidence at a preliminary hearing next Tuesday before L.A. Superior Court Judge Michael Pastor. But attorneys for the accused officers said in court Wednesday they intend to make Perez the focus of a vigorous defense.
Key to their argument is a series of polygraph examinations administered to Perez by the LAPD toward the end of last year. While prosecutors have acknowledged that Perez failed the lie-detector tests, attorney Barry Levin explained that the tests were more extensive than have been previously disclosed. According to Levin, attorney for accused Rampart CRASH Sergeant Ortiz, “Rafael Perez has never told the truth.”
Prosecutors respond that Perez failed the polygraph only because they were poorly administered. LAPD officials also contend that their own inquiries have corroborated 80 percent of the allegations lodged by Perez, but there’s been no explanation of how the cases were corroborated.
Given the questions about Perez’s honesty, the case against Harper, Liddy and Ortiz seems a curious opening move from a D.A. who has been criticized by Chief Parks and the City Council for moving too cautiously against the cops. Transcripts filed with the court show that, of a half-dozen officers called to testify before the county grand jury on the Lobos arrest, none said they witnessed any misconduct.
To attorney Levin, that shows the only police crimes Perez can truthfully point to are the ones he committed himself. While prosecutors say they remain confident they can make their case, Perez himself may prove a liability. “It seems to me this Rampart scandal has diminished quite substantially,” Levin said outside court last week. “This scandal is restricted to Officer Rafael Perez and his own actions.”
Spokesmen for the district attorney and for Chief Parks declined last week to discuss the results of the Perez polygraph exams. But new details emerged in court, and in documents filed by prosecutors. And Perez attorney Winston Kevin McKesson discussed the tests in an interview.
As Levin explained to Judge Pastor, Perez failed not one lie-detector test but five, administered between November 30 and December 16 of last year by an LAPD polygraph specialist. The five tests each covered a separate area of the Rampart scandal: the shooting of Javier Obando, crippled for life after he was handcuffed and shot by Perez and his partner, Officer Nino Durden; Shatto Place, where one youth was killed and another shot in a raid Perez characterized as “dirty”; a session devoted exclusively to Perez’s accounts of misconduct by his partner, Durden; another devoted to the activities of former Officer David Mack, a onetime Perez associate now serving time for bank robbery; and a final session on “other shootings not disclosed by Perez.”
At the time, the results of the polygraph tests were of critical importance to Perez. He was then still negotiating with prosecutors for a reduced sentence on charges of stealing cocaine from an LAPD evidence locker. In return, Perez was to give truthful testimony on his own extensive misconduct and that of his fellow officers at Rampart.
Then Perez failed the tests. Deputy District Attorney Richard Rosenthal, the prosecutor who first pressed the drug charges against Perez and then supervised his deal negotiations, described Perez’s reaction in a declaration filed with Judge Pastor.
“I advised Perez that he had come back deceptive on each and every polygraph exam. Perez reacted with a great deal of emotion. For more than an hour he insisted that he did not lie on any question given during the examination . . . He requested that we grant immunity to any person necessary to corroborate his allegations.”
In fact, the D.A. followed such a strategy in prosecuting Harper, Liddy and Ortiz, granting limited immunity to Officer Humberto Tovar, only to find that Tovar had little to say that would advance Perez’s story.
Rosenthal’s account closed with details of Perez’s demonstrative response to the lie-detector results. “During portions of this meeting Perez was sobbing heavily,” Rosenthal reported. Apparently referring to the price he was paying for telling the truth, Perez told Rosenthal that “Even in chapel, he has to pray with one eye open,” for fear of retaliation.
The District Attorney’s Office could have ended its talks with Perez right there or, attorney Levin suggested last week, it could have conducted a new round of tests. Instead, District Attorney Gil Garcetti and Perez attorney McKesson commissioned their own experts to challenge the tests.
Both experts came back with the same answer — the tests themselves were unsound. While the D.A. declined to discuss his findings, McKesson said the flaws were glaring. “My expert paged me on my way to church and told me these exams are some of the worst he’s ever seen.” Moreover, McKesson said, “The problem is, my guy is no longer polygraphable.”