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The Surprise Witness

The L.A. County Sheriff’s deputy who presented expert testimony in the excessive-force trial of former Inglewood Police Officer Jeremy Morse may just turn out to have been the star witness for both the prosecution and the defense.

Sheriff’s Department Cmdr. Charles Heal, called to the stand last week as the prosecution’s key expert, duly testified that Morse used unreasonable force when he slammed 16-year-old Donovan Jackson onto his patrol car and subdued him during an arrest last summer. Heal wasn’t there, and had no direct connection to the Inglewood officers or the videotaped incident that police critics compare with the Rodney King beating. But he saw the Morse tape, and prosecutors subpoenaed him to share his expertise on what an officer ought to do in a similar situation.

What he should do, Heal told the jury, is not what Morse did. The testimony was meant to assure jurors that Morse exceeded the standard in the law enforcement profession and could be held to account.

All that was fine, and in line with what he was expected to say. But then, courtroom prosecutors Michael Pettersen and Max Huntsman — and District Attorney Steve Cooley — had to grapple with what Heal went on to say on cross-examination. If Morse had been a Sheriff’s deputy under his command, Heal said, he would have “got his chain rattled” for how he treated the teenager. But would he have brought him up on criminal charges? No.

Outside the courtroom, Heal went further. He said there should have been no criminal charges filed, then added that he has done worse himself. Other use-of-force experts testified on Morse’s actions and prosecutors insisted they were in good shape. But legal experts were stunned by Heal’s performance.

“You never put someone on the stand if you don’t know what he’s going to say under cross-examination,” said a police defense lawyer who has followed the case through news reports and wished to remain anonymous. “And if you got him there by subpoena? He’s hostile to you. What were they thinking?”

Heal’s testimony comes at a sensitive time for Cooley, who is close to completing his first term and faces his re-election primary in March. Cooley campaigned against Gil Garcetti using a long bill of complaints, including Garcetti’s handling of the Rampart police corruption scandal, but he knew that voters had in the back of their minds that Garcetti couldn’t seem to win the big cases. The O.J. Simpson case stood out as the most glaring example. Garcetti in turn defeated his predecessor, Ira Reiner, using a similar campaign. Cooley must soon begin to look over his shoulder and see which of his deputies might be thinking about mounting a challenge — and which big cases the challenger might use as election-year ammunition.

Cooley critics are still unhappy about the decision not to bring hate crime charges in the baseball bat attacks against two gay men in West Hollywood last year. A loss in the Morse case wouldn’t help his cause at all.

Still, Cooley does not appear all that vulnerable, at least not yet. Longtime political consultant Joe Cerrell acknowledges that Cooley “would get less mileage out of a successful trial than he would get downside out of a negative outcome,” but Cerrell also points out that unlike Reiner and Garcetti, before their campaign defeats, Cooley is still in his first term. Besides, Cerrell says, Garcetti was a very high-profile guy who was closely associated in the public mind with the office’s failures and successes.

“Cooley,” Cerrell says, “sort of blends in.”

Voters also may have become a bit more sophisticated, in the wake of the Simpson case, about a district attorney’s role in any particular prosecution. The D.A. picks the prosecutors, then — usually — bows out.

But if Heal’s testimony leaves Cooley unscathed, what about the Sheriff’s Department? Heal, remember, said outside of court that he has done worse than Morse ever did. What, exactly, did he do? Queries to the Sheriff’s Department for details have gone unanswered so far. But some say the public may be more accepting now of aggressive tactics by law enforcement officers.

“It’s a pendulum, and it swings,” the police defense lawyer said. “It swung one way after Rodney King. Now maybe it is swinging back.”


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