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Trying for Justice

Last Friday marked a milestone in the year-plus history of the citywide temblor known as the Rampart scandal. Sergeant Edward Ortiz, named by Rafael Perez as the CRASH-unit supervisor who routinely helped officers cover up crimes under color of authority, and indicted in April on criminal charges alleging the same sort of misconduct, finally stepped to the witness stand.

But what ensued looked nothing like a corrupt officer caught in the glare of public scrutiny and official retribution. Ortiz was calm, relaxed and cooperative, at times even affable, first recounting for his attorney, Barry Levin, the highlights of a 20-year career at the LAPD, and then parrying queries from Deputy District Attorney Laura Laesecke.

His demeanor was that of a warrior, hard-bitten, plainspoken and bemused by the peculiar concerns of civilian observers. As the examination wore on, it was Laesecke who seemed increasingly ill at ease, reaching to regain the moral high ground that seemed to be crumbling beneath her feet.

At one point Laesecke focused on a CRASH roundup where gang members were handcuffed and held for hours with no evidence of a crime being committed. Where was the probable cause? the prosecutor demanded of Ortiz. ”Are you saying you could bring all those people in the alley into the District Attorney’s Office?“

Unfazed, Ortiz cocked his head and answered in a drawl, ”You brought me here, basically for doing my job.“ Laughter swept the courtroom, robbing the prosecutor of the initiative.

Once things calmed down, Laesecke took another tack. ”What you really were doing is conducting a war on gangs, isn‘t that right?“ Ortiz had another chance to look puzzled, and he took advantage. Finally, almost magnanimously, Ortiz conceded, ”There was an emphasis, from the chief of police to the mayor to the City Council, to cut down on drugs, to cut down on crime, so that’s what we did.“

The prosecutor‘s question was rhetorical, of course. Nobody with any tenure in Los Angeles, and certainly not at the LAPD, would deny that the department has been at war with the city’s myriad street gangs. But the sweeping language of policy and reform has little traction in the rarefied air of the courtroom, where even the most basic assumptions are open to challenge. Add to that a flawed case and a skeptical judge, and you get a trial that has failed to attain the symbolic stature that many anticipated.

Not that it has escaped notice. The trial has seen a steady flow of attorneys and other observers over the past three weeks -- including LAPD Inspector General Jeff Eglash, Police Protective League executives Ted Hunt and Cliff Ruff, police officers in and out of uniform, and lawyers from both the district attorney‘s and the public defender’s offices -- all drawn to catch a glimpse of what one public defender described as ”a seminal event in the life of the criminal-justice system in L.A.“

But for a city whose civic culture has for years been delineated by courthouse drama -- think O.J., think Rodney King, think Menendez -- the first criminal trial to arise from the Rampart corruption scandal cuts the other way. Rather than defining Rampart, rather than illuminating just what happened and what didn‘t, this trial has only clouded an already murky picture.

Laesecke laid out the unique nature of the case in her closing statement, delivered Monday afternoon, after Ortiz wrapped up his turn on the stand. The case went to the jury this week.

The case turns on two incidents in which four officers from the CRASH anti-gang unit are alleged to have concocted stories to frame gang members and send them to prison. The problem for prosecutors, Laesecke said, is ”How do you prove something that didn’t happen?“

In most crimes, Laesecke explained, there is some moment or act that someone might witness, or which might leave evidence that can be presented at trial. Here, however, ”It‘s the lack of evidence that is evidence in this case.“ That is, when the crime is fabricating reports about events that didn’t happen, the best evidence will involve witnesses who should have seen something but didn‘t, things that should have left some physical trace but left none.

Of course, the defense has a different version. Such as, there was no affirmative evidence of a conspiracy because none took place. In his passionate closing argument Tuesday, Ortiz defense attorney Barry Levin argued that the prosecutors are striving to prove a negative only because there is no crime for them to show.

”This whole case was created by the prosecutors and pandered by them,“ Levin declared. ”It’s garbage.“

Another factor robbing the first Rampart case of its impact is the absence of the star witness, rogue cop Rafael Perez. As the man whose voluminous confessions launched the scandal more than a year ago, Perez was integral to the case, providing firsthand accounts in each instance of the cop-conspirators huddling to cook up their fabrications. A week before the trial began, however, Perez was accused by a former lover of several homicides, alleged crimes that fell outside the immunity deal he‘d already won from the district attorney. When Perez announced he would take the Fifth Amendment if grilled by defense attorneys on the new allegations, prosecutors dropped him from the witness list.

 

Prosecutors were further hamstrung by what many observers see as the pro-defense -- that is, pro-police -- bias of Judge Jacqueline Connor. The judge’s rulings have been the subject of constant comment by observers sitting in on the proceedings, especially those members of the defense bar who were hoping at last to see the tables turned on cops they believed had railroaded criminal defendants for years.

Instead, they say, they have seen Judge Connor afford the defense attorneys the sort of leeway usually reserved for prosecutors and treat the prosecution with unusual skepticism. ”She‘s completely out of hand,“ Public Defender Daryne Nichole said during a break in testimony last week. Nichole noted that Connor’s rulings seemed to match a trial where the defendants are cops and the alleged victims gang members. ”All the dynamics of the courtroom have been turned on their head,“ she said.

Tamar Toister, the public defender who first represented Javier Ovando, a gang member shot and framed by Perez, and who has been a regular visitor to Connor‘s court, agreed. ”I wish all of my clients got rulings like the defense is getting in this case,“ Toister said.

Even the defense attorneys conceded they were getting unusually sympathetic treatment from Judge Connor. ”She’s given us a fair hearing,“ said Joel Isaacson, the lawyer representing Officer Paul Harper. ”She‘s just down the middle, which may be a little different than the usual case -- I won’t deny that.“

On the few occasions when Laesecke sought to open up broad allegations of misconduct and the CRASH culture at Rampart, the defense lawyers were quick to object and Connor quick to sustain. At one point, for example, Laesecke attempted to ask Sergeant Ortiz the meaning of the CRASH motto ”We intimidate those who intimidate others,“ but her question was cut off before she could even complete the slogan.

It‘s made for a muted trial, one that focused on the time stamps imprinted on LAPD communication tapes and the accuracy of in-car computers.

The case now being considered by the jury, then, is largely circumstantial, one constructed of disparate facts, most of them contested by the defense. As such, it seems unlikely to result in any resounding verdict.

That’s not to say it‘s not substantial. In the first of the two allegedly bogus arrests, for example, in which gang member Allan Lobos was busted for being a felon in possession of a gun, Officers Brian Liddy and Paul Harper reported that Lobos ran and hid next to a parked car, then emerged with his hands up after a helicopter arrived to illuminate the scene. Liddy then ordered Perez to search where Lobos was crouched, and Perez returned with a gun, according to the original police report.

At trial it was shown that Liddy and Harper were alone at the scene for just two minutes before other officers arrived and that the helicopter arrived afterward, yet none of the five officers called to testify could recall Lobos’ supposed surrender. ”They didn‘t see it because it didn’t happen,“ Laesecke emphasized. In fact, prosecutors say Lobos was simply rounded up and a gun was found later and planted on him. Moreover, they showed that it was not Perez but another officer who actually found the gun -- and at that point Lobos was already in custody.

If the jurors were simply being asked to review the initial arrest, it might be an easy call. That‘s what Superior Court Judge Larry Fidler already did in the Lobos case, and essentially what he did in overturning more than 100 Rampart convictions so far. But the jury is being asked to take the next step -- that is, to find the officers who carried out the arrest guilty of fraud, perjury and conspiracy.

Given the complexity and the charged nature of the case, it won’t be surprising if the jury punts the whole thing, deadlocking without reaching a verdict. And even if it were to find against the officers, it‘s likely to be a divided decision, with some officers guilty on some counts but not on others -- not the stuff to crystallize the city’s dysfunctional relationship with its police force.

 

More likely is that these officers will be exonerated. Yet again, such a finding would not bring anything like closure. Rafael Perez will still be out there, a former officer who himself led a crime spree while clad in the blue serge of the LAPD.

The fact is, this first Rampart trial was never going to resolve with any certainty the truth of Perez‘s allegations, because the narrow scope of the allegations never matched the sweep of his charges.

Take Sergeant Ortiz, for example. In nine months of interviews with police investigators, Perez profiled Ortiz as the quarterback of the CRASH unit, the supervisor upon whom corrupt cops relied to help them fabricate reports and hide their misconduct. It was Ortiz, Perez said, who orchestrated the officers’ accounts of the shootings at Shatto Place, including the killing of one unarmed gang member. And it was Ortiz, Perez said, who helped him and partner Nino Durden explain how they shot Javier Ovando, the unarmed gang member who was then sent to prison for assault on a police officer.

Was Ortiz the quarterback, a dark presence at the heart of the CRASH unit? We still don‘t know. And after three weeks of testimony and argument, this trial hasn’t brought us any closer to an answer.


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