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Rampart’s Elusive Justice

Any sense of closure in the Rampart police-corruption case moved a bit further beyond the city’s grasp this week when an appeals court agreed that a Los Angeles jury’s convictions against three LAPD officers should be dumped.

The ruling hands the next move to District Attorney Steve Cooley, who must decide for a second time whether to accept defeat and drop the case, or extend the matter indefinitely by either seeking Supreme Court review or asking for a new trial.

Defense attorney Harland Braun said the favorable decision for his client, accused officer Michael Buchanan, was inevitable. “I think because it’s a Rampart case Steve Cooley felt he had to go through all the steps,” said Braun. “It’s hard to explain to the public that this was a hopeless appeal in the first place.”

Cooley’s office had no comment on the ruling.

Nearly eight years have passed since LAPD officers Buchanan, Edward Ortiz and Brian Liddy raided a Los Feliz gang summit in search of Raul Muñoz, then allegedly lied about being chased down and hit by a truck with Muñoz at the wheel. TV footage shot from a helicopter hovering overhead provided a key piece of evidence at the trial and was a focus of the appeal — and today offers, in the face of the probe into the recent helicopter-videotaped police beating of an accused car thief, a disturbing sense of continuity in the ongoing saga of trouble at the LAPD.

For a brief few weeks in November and December 2000, the guilty verdicts appeared to be a breakthrough in the wrenching public drama of Rampart. The City Council had just signed on to a consent decree for federal oversight of the Police Department, and Cooley had just defeated District Attorney Gil Garcetti in a campaign dominated by the Rampart scandal, when the jury convicted the three officers on various corruption charges. A fresh start at the LAPD, and a final conclusion in Rampart, seemed within reach.

But Los Angeles Superior Court Judge Jacqueline Conner threw out the verdict a month later on the basis of what she said was her own mistake in instructing the jurors. Cooley, just a few days in office and still promising to wrap up the scandal, decided against either dropping the case or moving directly to a new trial and instead bought his office some time with an appeal.

Now, though, he is back in the same boat, four years later, facing a familiar quandary: Try the case (again), appeal (again), or just let go of Rampart, once and for all.