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In Contempt

You get the impression that Deputy District Attorney Laura Laesecke saw it coming all along.

After all, from the first day of the criminal trial of four officers from the LAPD‘s Rampart Division, Superior Court Judge Jacqueline Connor had consistently ruled against the prosecution and in favor of the accused officers. Laesecke, the lead prosecutor, never showed exasperation; instead she thanked the judge for her rulings and for pressing ahead with the case.

But midway through the trial, as the prosecution rested its case and the defense moved to dismiss, Laesecke closed her presentation with a direct appeal to the judge. Leaving aside the arguments over facts and witness credibility, Laesecke implored Connor that ”This is a decision that needs to be made by the community. This is a decision that needs to be made by the jury.“

Connor responded last Friday with an extraordinary decision to throw out the jury verdict. In so doing, the judge nullified four weeks of testimony and argument, and underscored the notion that, as in the case of the Rodney King beatings, L.A.’s criminal-justice system cannot bring itself to hold the city‘s police officers to account.

Not content simply to reject the verdict, Connor made it virtually immune from appeal by asserting that it was her own ”fatal error,“ as well as those of the attorneys from both sides, that had tainted the jury’s deliberations. While Connor seemed to be falling on her own sword, it was the district attorney and the LAPD‘s critics who will pay the price, as any hope for convictions against the accused Rampart cops will have to start at square one.

Judge Connor anticipated her critics in her written decision. As she wound up 18 pages of explanation, the judge specifically renounced any obligation to recognize ”the enormous pressure on the community, on the police force, on the District Attorney’s Office and on the courts to ‘fix’ the Rampart scandal.“

Instead, Connor said, she was ”only interested in evaluating the fairness of the proceedings in this court and determining whether justice was done in this case.“ Of course, the 12 members of the jury thought they were doing just that, but Connor decided she knew better.

Judge Connor explained in detail how she arrived at that conclusion. Along the way she made it clear that, aside from the niceties of the law, she never stopped believing the accused officers, and that she would have trouble with any verdict finding them guilty. At one point, Connor says flat out that ”The court does not find sufficient evidence to support a verdict.“

But Connor was not willing to base her ruling simply on a dispute with the jury over whom to believe. She reversed their verdict, she said, because the jury had misunderstood the charges which the officers had alleged against the gangbangers they were accused of framing.

The guilty verdict turned on the allegation that Temple Street gang member Raul Munoz struck police officers Michael Buchanan and Brian Liddy with his truck while fleeing a late-night police raid. Munoz and several witnesses said the truck sped by at least two officers, but never struck anyone. Munoz and a passenger were charged with assault with a deadly weapon on a police officer, likely to produce great bodily injury. The charges were filed by Sergeant Ed Ortiz, who was present at the scene.

At trial, Buchanan and Liddy testified that they had gone to the hospital, while Ortiz explained that he had ordered them to seek medical attention. This is where the jury parted ways with the officers: While the majority decided the entire story about the truck had been fabricated, several held to the belief the truck might have ”grazed“ the officers. But all 12 agreed that any allegation of great bodily harm was bogus, and thus the arrest represented a conspiracy to frame the driver of the truck.

In her review, Connor held that the only relevant question was whether the truck hit the officers or not. The charge of assault, she noted, does not require an actual injury, just the potential for one. The jury went astray, she said, when it made its finding that no injury had taken place.

It was a fine line, perhaps too fine. Because while Connor held the jury to her strict reading of the law, the officers in the field relied on their own lay interpretation. And in testimony at the trial, Sergeant Ortiz made it clear that, like the jurors, he also felt he had to show injuries in order to file against Munoz. Asked on the stand why he sent officers Buchanan and Liddy to the hospital, Ortiz answered, ”It‘s a requirement that the officers get medically treated so the District Attorney’s Office will file the cases.“

The jury took that testimony at face value, and deduced that if, in fact, the alleged injuries were fake, then the charges were bogus too. But Connor simply couldn‘t grasp the idea that she might be the one who had lost track of what really happened that night, and decided instead that the jury had been tripped up on a technicality.

In arguments filed last week, Deputy D.A. Laesecke tried to head off Connor. She quoted a state Supreme Court decision that held, ”The jury system in this country is based on the belief that non-professional jurors will bring to the fact-finding process a combination of community attitude and practical wisdom born of real-life experience which is to be preferred to the more legalistic approach of the professional jurist.“

But Connor shrugged that one off as well.

Of course, this isn’t the end of the case. D.A. Steve Cooley will take up the question upon his return from Christmas vacation, and odds are good he‘ll simply refile the charges and start again. That could lend Connor’s ruling an ironic twist, helping to advance the cause of police reform rather than thwarting it.

If there is a new trial, the circumstances would be quite different than the case just completed. This first Rampart criminal prosecution never lived up to its billing because the prosecution‘s star witness, former Rampart CRASH Officer Rafael Perez, never took the stand because of allegations from a former girlfriend that Perez had engaged in several homicides. Those charges have since been recanted, leaving the D.A. free to call Perez to the witness stand.

An appearance by Perez will finally allow the criminal justice system, and the city, a chance to test the allegations of the rogue cop-turned informant. Defense attorneys for the accused cops seemed to relish the prospect of grilling Perez on his past misdeeds and the accusations he leveled against his brethren in blue. But in the 18 months since he started talking, Perez has proven hard to shake. If his charges against Liddy, Ortiz and Buchanan stand up, their prosecution could be the first of many.

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