By Michael Goldstein
By Dennis Romero
By Sarah Fenske
By Matthew Mullins
By Patrick Range McDonald
By LA Weekly
By Dennis Romero
By Simone Wilson
Defense attorneys, led by former LAPD Officer Barry Levin, have attacked the credibility of witnesses like Munoz. And the police witnesses have been uniformly reluctant. Last week, Laesecke suggested to former CRASH Officer Mark Richardson, now assigned to Metro, ”Let‘s be honest here, you don’t want to testify against your fellow officers.“ Richardson agreed. ”I don‘t think this is right,“ he said simply.
Yet, in the course of more than a week of testimony, the jury has been presented plenty of grist to mull. Consider the incident that has received the most attention at trial so far, an arrest that took place when Rafael Perez was leading the CRASH campaign against the Temple Street Gang.
In July of 1996, Perez got a tip on plans for a Temple Street meeting. He and Officer Argomaniz staked out a darkened parking lot, and when more than 40 gang members showed up, Rampart and Northeast Division CRASH dispatched a raiding party of more than 25 officers.
Temple Street veteran Munoz was among those on hand, armed with a .357 Magnum provided at the gathering by a fellow gang member. When a police helicopter buzzed the location, Munoz fled down an alley in a pickup truck until his path was blocked by a squad car. Then, according to Munoz, he jumped from the truck, holding the gun under his shirt, and sprinted up the street. Officer Brian Liddy gave chase.
Halfway up the block, Munoz said, he tossed the weapon into a bush; a few paces later, he was confronted by an officer wielding a shotgun, and surrendered. Moments later, Munoz testified, Officer Liddy arrived and, finding Munoz prone on the ground, kicked him between the legs, hard enough that Munoz lost control of his bladder and bowels. A short time later, while he was handcuffed, Munoz said, Liddy pressed him for information on a gang member wanted in a homicide. When Munoz refused to cooperate, Liddy arrested him.
It was only later, Munoz testified, that he learned he was charged with striking Liddy and fellow Officer Buchanan with his truck while fleeing the scene. Munoz maintained his innocence, but nobody listened -- not his attorney, not his parole officer. After pleading guilty and serving most of a three-year sentence, Munoz was deported to El Salvador, where he resides to this day.
Investigators learned of the Munoz case from Perez, who said during taped interviews that the officers were never struck, that they invented the injuries they said they sustained, and that they detailed the bogus events in a false police report. When police investigators located Munoz in January in San Salvador, he again asserted his innocence.
Parts of Munoz’s story have been corroborated by two witnesses, one a cop and one a civilian.
Jurors also heard from Mark Arnold, the prosecutor who tried that case and now a Superior Court judge. Arnold said he brought the case solely on the strength of the statements of Liddy and Buchanan. He said he never questioned the officers‘ accounts, and never interviewed any other witnesses before deciding to proceed with the case.
Arnold conceded on the stand that he did harbor doubts at the time -- in particular, he thought Buchanan ”would have shown more serious injuries“ from his encounter with the pickup truck -- but decided the evidence was ”sufficient“ to take to a jury. The case was settled when Munoz and his passenger agreed to plead guilty.
Now a new jury will deliberate that case. This time they are hearing from all the parties involved, and hearing that the district attorney now believes it was wrong to prosecute Munoz. To find against the officers, however, all 12 jurors must rule not only that the initial conviction was bogus, but that the officers conspired to make it so.
That’s a long stretch to make on the basis of patchwork evidence and the recall of bystanders four years later. But one thing already is clear as this case moves forward: Since Rafael Perez began to talk, nothing should be taken for granted.
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