By Hillel Aron
By Joseph Tsidulko
By Patrick Range McDonald
By David Futch
By Hillel Aron
By Dennis Romero
By Jill Stewart
By Dennis Romero
Last Friday marked a milestone in the year-plus history of the citywide temblor known as the Rampart scandal. Sergeant Edward Ortiz, named by Rafael Perez as the CRASH-unit supervisor who routinely helped officers cover up crimes under color of authority, and indicted in April on criminal charges alleging the same sort of misconduct, finally stepped to the witness stand.
But what ensued looked nothing like a corrupt officer caught in the glare of public scrutiny and official retribution. Ortiz was calm, relaxed and cooperative, at times even affable, first recounting for his attorney, Barry Levin, the highlights of a 20-year career at the LAPD, and then parrying queries from Deputy District Attorney Laura Laesecke.
His demeanor was that of a warrior, hard-bitten, plainspoken and bemused by the peculiar concerns of civilian observers. As the examination wore on, it was Laesecke who seemed increasingly ill at ease, reaching to regain the moral high ground that seemed to be crumbling beneath her feet.
At one point Laesecke focused on a CRASH roundup where gang members were handcuffed and held for hours with no evidence of a crime being committed. Where was the probable cause? the prosecutor demanded of Ortiz. ”Are you saying you could bring all those people in the alley into the District Attorney’s Office?“
Unfazed, Ortiz cocked his head and answered in a drawl, ”You brought me here, basically for doing my job.“ Laughter swept the courtroom, robbing the prosecutor of the initiative.
Once things calmed down, Laesecke took another tack. ”What you really were doing is conducting a war on gangs, isn‘t that right?“ Ortiz had another chance to look puzzled, and he took advantage. Finally, almost magnanimously, Ortiz conceded, ”There was an emphasis, from the chief of police to the mayor to the City Council, to cut down on drugs, to cut down on crime, so that’s what we did.“
The prosecutor‘s question was rhetorical, of course. Nobody with any tenure in Los Angeles, and certainly not at the LAPD, would deny that the department has been at war with the city’s myriad street gangs. But the sweeping language of policy and reform has little traction in the rarefied air of the courtroom, where even the most basic assumptions are open to challenge. Add to that a flawed case and a skeptical judge, and you get a trial that has failed to attain the symbolic stature that many anticipated.
Not that it has escaped notice. The trial has seen a steady flow of attorneys and other observers over the past three weeks -- including LAPD Inspector General Jeff Eglash, Police Protective League executives Ted Hunt and Cliff Ruff, police officers in and out of uniform, and lawyers from both the district attorney‘s and the public defender’s offices -- all drawn to catch a glimpse of what one public defender described as ”a seminal event in the life of the criminal-justice system in L.A.“
But for a city whose civic culture has for years been delineated by courthouse drama -- think O.J., think Rodney King, think Menendez -- the first criminal trial to arise from the Rampart corruption scandal cuts the other way. Rather than defining Rampart, rather than illuminating just what happened and what didn‘t, this trial has only clouded an already murky picture.
Laesecke laid out the unique nature of the case in her closing statement, delivered Monday afternoon, after Ortiz wrapped up his turn on the stand. The case went to the jury this week.
The case turns on two incidents in which four officers from the CRASH anti-gang unit are alleged to have concocted stories to frame gang members and send them to prison. The problem for prosecutors, Laesecke said, is ”How do you prove something that didn’t happen?“
In most crimes, Laesecke explained, there is some moment or act that someone might witness, or which might leave evidence that can be presented at trial. Here, however, ”It‘s the lack of evidence that is evidence in this case.“ That is, when the crime is fabricating reports about events that didn’t happen, the best evidence will involve witnesses who should have seen something but didn‘t, things that should have left some physical trace but left none.
Of course, the defense has a different version. Such as, there was no affirmative evidence of a conspiracy because none took place. In his passionate closing argument Tuesday, Ortiz defense attorney Barry Levin argued that the prosecutors are striving to prove a negative only because there is no crime for them to show.
”This whole case was created by the prosecutors and pandered by them,“ Levin declared. ”It’s garbage.“
Another factor robbing the first Rampart case of its impact is the absence of the star witness, rogue cop Rafael Perez. As the man whose voluminous confessions launched the scandal more than a year ago, Perez was integral to the case, providing firsthand accounts in each instance of the cop-conspirators huddling to cook up their fabrications. A week before the trial began, however, Perez was accused by a former lover of several homicides, alleged crimes that fell outside the immunity deal he‘d already won from the district attorney. When Perez announced he would take the Fifth Amendment if grilled by defense attorneys on the new allegations, prosecutors dropped him from the witness list.