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Slow Road to Rampart Justice

Police reformers were outraged when the perjury convictions of three Rampart Division police officers were voided just before Christmas of 2000. It could take a year, they argued, maybe more, to bring the case up on appeal and, if necessary, back for retrial. Witness recollections could grow hazy. Resources would be diverted to fresher cases. The whole process of bringing corrupt Los Angeles police officers to justice, finally under way, could be set back months.

As it turned out, a year was optimistic. It wasn’t until last week that a Los Angeles deputy district attorney stood before a three-justice appeals panel to argue for reinstating the jury verdicts against LAPD Sergeants Brian Liddy and Edward Ortiz and Officer Michael Buchanan. It would “destroy the jury system,” Brentford J. Ferreira told the panel, to uphold Superior Court Judge Jacqueline Connor’s ruling that wiped out the convictions and derailed what had been an escalating series of prosecutions.

The Court of Appeal can take up to another three months to decide whether to reinstate the verdicts or instead to agree with Connor that jury deliberations were fatally tainted by her own mistake in instructing the jurors on just what they were and were not supposed to consider. If the verdicts are thrown out for good, at least four years will have passed between the convictions and a retrial — assuming District Attorney Steve Cooley persists in his demand for one.

Even by the slow and deliberate standards of the justice system, that’s a long time for criminal prosecutions to remain in limbo. It’s especially irksome in the case of Liddy, Ortiz and Buchanan, who represent the largest catch of Rampart officers criminally charged based on testimony by Rafael Perez, the notorious lying cop who named ex-colleagues as part of a plea bargain in his own case.

A few blocks from the appeals court and a couple of days earlier, several members of the Blue Ribbon Rampart Review Panel gathered to hear testimony from Police Chief William Bratton and Deputy Chief Michael Berkow on confidential procedures that the new LAPD uses to snag officers who may be tempted to stray from the straight and narrow. Berkow came back the next day to do it all over again, this time without the sensitive internal secrets, so that the public could get a firsthand look.

Like the appeal in the case of the three Rampart officers, the Blue Ribbon Commission process has moved like molasses on a cold day. It was in February 2003 that Bratton said he wanted such a panel, so that he, the Police Commission and the public could finally get the crucial “after-action” report that describes who did what in Rampart and what became of them. It was November 2003 before the Police Commission approved a “blueprint” for the panel, headed by civil rights lawyer Connie Rice, and issued a statement that the panel now “moves forward in its quest.” It was last summer that the panel met for the first time. But it was last week before the group had its first real business sessions.

The pace has been set not by Rice, but by a hostile City Hall bureaucracy that knows how to slow things down when it suits its purposes. Now that funding is in place and the panel has launched, though, the process is expected to move more quickly.

Movement has been much faster at, of all places, Parker Center, where the brass once made an art of throwing bureaucratic doublespeak in the way of reform and other attempts at outside interference.

Berkow, a colorful figure who earned a law degree while patrolling the streets of Rochester, New York, and later led police departments in Coachella, South Pasadena and Irvine, told Rice and other members of the panel that he and Bratton have reinvented the unit once known as Internal Affairs. Some changes seem, in retrospect, common sense. For example, any criminal prosecutions of officers are now completed before the LAPD discipline system kicks in. That means testimony of suspected officers, given subject to Fifth Amendment rights against self-incrimination, is untainted by any later forced testimony in an administrative hearing.

The new Professional Standards Bureau still follows up on complaints, as Internal Affairs used to, but they are focusing resources on what Berkow said were more expensive, more difficult — and more successful — “proactive investigations.” In other words, stings. Based on red flags raised by routine audits, or simply at random, undercover officers lay traps for officers who may be prone to breaking the rules, or worse.

“At the end of the day, all of this stuff is about controlling behavior,” Berkow told the panel.

 

A sting, in theory, could have caught allegedly corrupt Rampart officers like Liddy, Ortiz and Buchanan, or dissuaded them from breaking the law in the first place.

Like most officers fingered by Perez, the three policemen who are the subject of the appeal were accused of falsifying reports and perjuring themselves to secure convictions of people who may or may not have committed crimes. In the primary case against them, it is fairly clear that Raul Munoz was breaking probation when he showed up at a gang summit in a Los Feliz alley in 1996. It’s also fairly clear that he tried to flee when police raided the meeting. He jumped into his pickup truck — hiding a gun under his shirt — and raced down the alley with Cesar Natividad in the passenger seat. He drove close to Buchanan, but just how close is a matter of dispute. Buchanan and Liddy said in their report that Munoz hit Buchanan, on purpose, knocking him over the hood and into the windshield. Natividad, they said, opened the passenger-side door of the speeding truck to get Liddy.

Perez, out of court, swore that all three lied. None of the officers, he said, was hit by the truck.

After a monthlong trial in October and November 2000, at which jurors heard testimony that Ortiz instructed Buchanan and Liddy to go to the hospital to make it look like they were really hit, a jury convicted all three officers (it acquitted a fourth).

But during deliberations, Connor said later, she began to worry that the jurors misunderstood some police lingo for the arguably trumped-up charge, assault with a deadly weapon likely to produce great bodily injury. After studying affidavits from several jurors, Connor concluded that the jury took the jargon — “ADW w/GBI” — to mean that the officers were claiming that they suffered great bodily injury, and not to mean what it really meant — that the officers were simply claiming they were chased down by a truck. She said she intended to caution the jury on the meaning of the term, but the verdict came in before she had a chance.

In the midst of the trial, Cooley defeated Gil Garcetti for district attorney. He was in office for just a few days when Connor threw out the guilty verdict, and in January 2001 he chose not to go right to a retrial but first to appeal Connor’s ruling.

There were a couple of good reasons for the move. It would be a bad precedent, Ferreira told the appeals court, to permit a judge to delve into the thought processes of the jury when there was no obvious misconduct. The time bought by the appeal process also allows prosecutors to make their case ironclad for the retrial by securing testimony from a bevy of witnesses disallowed last time by Connor, who said they were sprung on the defense too late in the process. And they can, if they dare, finally get in-court testimony from Perez, who wasn’t available last time because he was busy fighting criminal allegations by an ex-girlfriend (she later admitted that she had lied).

But time also takes its toll on witnesses, and allows the defense more opportunity to impeach their credibility.

The Rice panel, when it is done with its investigations, is expected to present a report that makes clear not just what became of Buchanan, Liddy and Ortiz, but what happened to every disciplinary and criminal probe in the Rampart matter. Even allowing for a quick retrial and a speedy series of panel hearings, the process will take months, at least. By then, the LAPD may well have zoomed past the courts and the commission in reforming itself.

Rice, one of the department’s harshest critics, was clearly impressed with what she has seen and heard of the new LAPD.

“You see almost a 180-degree different culture there from what I saw 10 years ago,” she said.

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