The evening of April 26, 1996, was just another lousy night in the dead-end world of L.A.s most notorious street gang. An 18th Street regular named Frosty had been shot and killed the week before; tonight, members of three separate 18th Street cliques were getting together to hoist a few beers in his memory.
Chano was there, along with Clever, from the Shatto Park clique. Diablo and Rascal made it down from Hollywood, even though they were on probation, along with Termite and Tiny, two of the top figures at the Columbia Lil Psychos, the 18th Street chapter that ran the drug traffic in MacArthur Park. Termite added an air of royalty to the wake -- his connections were said to run directly to the Mexican Mafia.
There was music from the back of a truck and a few girls, all hanging in a parking lot at Fourth and Hartford near the Harbor Freeway. The gangsters were grooving until the CRASH unit showed up.
As Chano recalled it in court testimony last week, a single squad car screeched to the curb and two officers jumped out immediately. They burned tire when they got there, pull out their guns, say freeze, Chano testified in thick dialect.
Everyone agrees that Diablo and Rascal bolted immediately through a back fence. Just what else happened is one of the central disputes at the Rampart police-corruption trial now under way in L.A. Superior Court. The police at the scene, including defendant officers Brian Liddy and Paul Harper and Sergeant Edward Ortiz, say they spotted Clever stashing a gun next to a car. When they found the gun, they arrested Clever and charged him with possession of a weapon.
Clever, whose real name is Allan Lobos, and the other gang members present say that the gun wasnt his, and was planted later by Officer Liddy. They say Liddy stuffed the gun into Lobos hand to get his fingerprints on the weapon.
The case follows a script familiar to most of the attorneys who practice in the criminal-courts building downtown, pitting the word of the police against that of the gangsters. Rogue cop Rafael Perez turned that equation on its head a year ago when, in return for a reduced sentence on charges of stealing cocaine from an LAPD evidence locker, he told prosecutors that officers in the Rampart CRASH unit routinely lied, fabricated evidence and framed gang members. His confessions led to the reversal of more than 100 criminal convictions.
Yet, when the first criminal case charged against Rampart cops came to trial, Perez was dropped from the witness list because he refused to answer questions stemming from new accusations that he was involved in several homicides. And prosecutors located five witnesses to the 1996 police action who were not gang members, but Judge Jacqueline A. Connor barred their testimony, as they were produced months after the case was filed.
Consequently, the only witnesses accusing the cops of misconduct that night are gang members -- a circumstance the attorneys representing the four accused cops have seized upon. Using the same logic that proved so successful in the days Rafael Perez himself was taking the stand, the jury is being asked, Who do they believe: the sworn, uniformed officers of the LAPD, or the drug-using, crime-prone hoodlums of L.A.s street-gang underworld?
The attacks have been relentless, as all four defense attorneys have taken turns during cross-examination to delve into the criminal backgrounds, associations and lifestyles of the gang members brought by the prosecution to testify against police. Its a strategy with implications reaching well beyond the current trial. If the gang members can effectively be disqualified as reliable witnesses, then police officers from the LAPD gang squad, even corrupt ones, will be all but immune from criminal prosecution.
Defense attorney Barry Levin, representing Sergeant Ortiz, has been the most aggressive in challenging the testimony of gang members. A former police officer himself, Levin is an intense interrogator, phrasing his questions in a strong, impatient voice, confronting inconsistency, challenging evasion, always homing in on his bottom line -- that gang members are outside society and not to be trusted.
Levin showed off his technique in confronting Raul Munoz, a member of the Temple Street Gang who was deported to El Salvador after what Rafael Perez described as a bogus arrest. On the stand, Munoz testified about the events leading to his arrest, and then closed by saying that hed left the gang life behind. In El Salvador my life has switched, Munoz said. Im a welder. I got married. I have a newborn son.
Levin stepped to the podium and picked up the thread. What did you switch from? Levin ignored Munozs vague response and pressed the point. Isnt it true that the Temple Street Gang regularly commits murders?