Light of Justice 

Federal judge agrees to take another look at secret deal in Inglewood brutality case

Thursday, Feb 12 2004
Photo by Anne Fishbein

Ask District Attorney Steve Cooley if he has concerns about how the Inglewood Police Department handled persistent charges of misconduct on the part of former Officer Jeremy Morse, and he’ll shrug and say, “Internal Affairs wasn’t real conscientious. Or they hadn’t gotten around to it. But they fired him eventually. That’s one sanction for his conduct.”

Try telling that to Patricia Surjue, a Department of Homeland Security employee and mother of two. Surjue claims Morse threw her down the stairs of her own home in front of her children, damaging her both physically and emotionally, in October 2001. That was months after others had complained of similar abuse, and long before Morse was caught on videotape beating teenager Donovan Jackson, in July 2002.

When Cooley chose to try the Jackson case, for obvious reasons in this post–Rodney King era, Surjue turned to the civil justice system. But she found no justice there. Her own lawyers and a federal judge last October cajoled her into a confidential settlement, an improper tactic for public agencies which almost allowed Inglewood officials to sweep her case under the rug. Lawyers for the city may try similar strategies to dispose of lawsuits by Morse’s alleged victims, leaving the public to wonder about the steps Inglewood officials took, or did not take, through 11 internal investigations in Morse’s first 31 months on the job.

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Surjue’s search for justice improved in the days after a January 16 story in the L.A. Weekly exposed the secret deal. Now, after initially pushing her toward a back-door settlement, U.S. District Judge James Otero has acknowledged her First Amendment right to tell her story and the public’s right to know about Morse. The judge has scheduled a hearing for February 17 to determine whether Surjue’s reluctant settlement will be revised or called off, which leaves open the possibility of a trial.

And last week, after Cooley’s office failed a second time to convict Morse, the U.S. Department of Justice launched a criminal investigation into the Jackson case. Though the scope is limited to a review of Morse’s two state criminal trials, officials in Washington, D.C., do not rule out the possibility of “further federal action, if warranted.” Such action would come from the civil division at the Justice Department, to examine patterns of police misconduct on the Inglewood force.

Judge Otero, in a ruling last September 2, supported Surjue’s version of events. He agreed that Morse entered Surjue’s home illegally on October 20, 2001, in response to a child visitation complaint and illegally seized her in violation of her civil rights. Surjue further claimed that Morse used excessive force when he threw her against the wall and shoved her down the stairs. Surjue said that she and her two boys, ages 5 and 12 at the time, remain traumatized, and a broken coccyx left her incontinent. (Morse has remained silent, but his partner, Officer Bijan Darvish, wrote in a police report that Morse lost his grip as he escorted a flailing Surjue down the stairs. Darvish was acquitted last July of filing a false police report in the Jackson case.)

Despite the judge’s favorable ruling, Surjue walked into Otero’s courtroom on October 23 feeling dejected. She had been unhappy with her lawyers, Robert Mann and Cynthia Anderson-Barker, she told the Weekly last month. She said they were too focused on a settlement that would earn them $250,000, while she and her sons would have to settle for $220,000. But to her it was about more than money. “There has to be accountability,” she said, adding that she fears for her safety. “I am a law-abiding citizen. The city of Inglewood had a responsibility to protect me.”

But the city of Inglewood’s top priority seems to be to settle these matters quietly. The city faces at least five other lawsuits related to Morse, including one by Jackson. Morse was fired in 2002. Darvish is still on the force. The risk of bad publicity and a drain on city coffers is high. Ivie, McNeill & Wyatt represents the city, and is one of several firms the city is paying to fend off civil suits related to Morse and Darvish. The firm’s job is to resolve the Surjue case — outside the public view.

A transcript of an October 23 meeting in Otero’s courtroom shows the judge facilitating that goal. After explaining the settlement offer to Surjue, who claims she was intimidated, Otero said, “Look, Ms. Surjue, I’m not sure you appreciate the significant achievement by your counsel.” Once her lawyers reviewed the agreement, they would approve it and she would be required to sign, the judge said. “If you for any reason don’t sign that settlement document, this court will direct the clerk to sign [it] causing the case to be settled,” Otero said.

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