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
Prosecutors were further hamstrung by what many observers see as the pro-defense -- that is, pro-police -- bias of Judge Jacqueline Connor. The judge’s rulings have been the subject of constant comment by observers sitting in on the proceedings, especially those members of the defense bar who were hoping at last to see the tables turned on cops they believed had railroaded criminal defendants for years.
Instead, they say, they have seen Judge Connor afford the defense attorneys the sort of leeway usually reserved for prosecutors and treat the prosecution with unusual skepticism. ”She‘s completely out of hand,“ Public Defender Daryne Nichole said during a break in testimony last week. Nichole noted that Connor’s rulings seemed to match a trial where the defendants are cops and the alleged victims gang members. ”All the dynamics of the courtroom have been turned on their head,“ she said.
Tamar Toister, the public defender who first represented Javier Ovando, a gang member shot and framed by Perez, and who has been a regular visitor to Connor‘s court, agreed. ”I wish all of my clients got rulings like the defense is getting in this case,“ Toister said.
Even the defense attorneys conceded they were getting unusually sympathetic treatment from Judge Connor. ”She’s given us a fair hearing,“ said Joel Isaacson, the lawyer representing Officer Paul Harper. ”She‘s just down the middle, which may be a little different than the usual case -- I won’t deny that.“
On the few occasions when Laesecke sought to open up broad allegations of misconduct and the CRASH culture at Rampart, the defense lawyers were quick to object and Connor quick to sustain. At one point, for example, Laesecke attempted to ask Sergeant Ortiz the meaning of the CRASH motto ”We intimidate those who intimidate others,“ but her question was cut off before she could even complete the slogan.
It‘s made for a muted trial, one that focused on the time stamps imprinted on LAPD communication tapes and the accuracy of in-car computers.
The case now being considered by the jury, then, is largely circumstantial, one constructed of disparate facts, most of them contested by the defense. As such, it seems unlikely to result in any resounding verdict.
That’s not to say it‘s not substantial. In the first of the two allegedly bogus arrests, for example, in which gang member Allan Lobos was busted for being a felon in possession of a gun, Officers Brian Liddy and Paul Harper reported that Lobos ran and hid next to a parked car, then emerged with his hands up after a helicopter arrived to illuminate the scene. Liddy then ordered Perez to search where Lobos was crouched, and Perez returned with a gun, according to the original police report.
At trial it was shown that Liddy and Harper were alone at the scene for just two minutes before other officers arrived and that the helicopter arrived afterward, yet none of the five officers called to testify could recall Lobos’ supposed surrender. ”They didn‘t see it because it didn’t happen,“ Laesecke emphasized. In fact, prosecutors say Lobos was simply rounded up and a gun was found later and planted on him. Moreover, they showed that it was not Perez but another officer who actually found the gun -- and at that point Lobos was already in custody.
If the jurors were simply being asked to review the initial arrest, it might be an easy call. That‘s what Superior Court Judge Larry Fidler already did in the Lobos case, and essentially what he did in overturning more than 100 Rampart convictions so far. But the jury is being asked to take the next step -- that is, to find the officers who carried out the arrest guilty of fraud, perjury and conspiracy.
Given the complexity and the charged nature of the case, it won’t be surprising if the jury punts the whole thing, deadlocking without reaching a verdict. And even if it were to find against the officers, it‘s likely to be a divided decision, with some officers guilty on some counts but not on others -- not the stuff to crystallize the city’s dysfunctional relationship with its police force.
More likely is that these officers will be exonerated. Yet again, such a finding would not bring anything like closure. Rafael Perez will still be out there, a former officer who himself led a crime spree while clad in the blue serge of the LAPD.
The fact is, this first Rampart trial was never going to resolve with any certainty the truth of Perez‘s allegations, because the narrow scope of the allegations never matched the sweep of his charges.
Take Sergeant Ortiz, for example. In nine months of interviews with police investigators, Perez profiled Ortiz as the quarterback of the CRASH unit, the supervisor upon whom corrupt cops relied to help them fabricate reports and hide their misconduct. It was Ortiz, Perez said, who orchestrated the officers’ accounts of the shootings at Shatto Place, including the killing of one unarmed gang member. And it was Ortiz, Perez said, who helped him and partner Nino Durden explain how they shot Javier Ovando, the unarmed gang member who was then sent to prison for assault on a police officer.
Was Ortiz the quarterback, a dark presence at the heart of the CRASH unit? We still don‘t know. And after three weeks of testimony and argument, this trial hasn’t brought us any closer to an answer.