The evening of April 26, 1996, was just another lousy night in the dead-end world of L.A.‘s most notorious street gang. An 18th Street regular named Frosty had been shot and killed the week before; tonight, members of three separate 18th Street cliques were getting together to hoist a few beers in his memory.
Chano was there, along with Clever, from the Shatto Park clique. Diablo and Rascal made it down from Hollywood, even though they were on probation, along with Termite and Tiny, two of the top figures at the Columbia Lil’ Psychos, the 18th Street chapter that ran the drug traffic in MacArthur Park. Termite added an air of royalty to the wake — his connections were said to run directly to the Mexican Mafia.
There was music from the back of a truck and a few girls, all hanging in a parking lot at Fourth and Hartford near the Harbor Freeway. The gangsters were grooving until the CRASH unit showed up.
As Chano recalled it in court testimony last week, a single squad car screeched to the curb and two officers jumped out immediately. ”They burned tire when they got there, pull out their guns, say freeze,“ Chano testified in thick dialect.
Everyone agrees that Diablo and Rascal bolted immediately through a back fence. Just what else happened is one of the central disputes at the Rampart police-corruption trial now under way in L.A. Superior Court. The police at the scene, including defendant officers Brian Liddy and Paul Harper and Sergeant Edward Ortiz, say they spotted Clever stashing a gun next to a car. When they found the gun, they arrested Clever and charged him with possession of a weapon.
Clever, whose real name is Allan Lobos, and the other gang members present say that the gun wasn‘t his, and was planted later by Officer Liddy. They say Liddy stuffed the gun into Lobos’ hand to get his fingerprints on the weapon.
The case follows a script familiar to most of the attorneys who practice in the criminal-courts building downtown, pitting the word of the police against that of the gangsters. Rogue cop Rafael Perez turned that equation on its head a year ago when, in return for a reduced sentence on charges of stealing cocaine from an LAPD evidence locker, he told prosecutors that officers in the Rampart CRASH unit routinely lied, fabricated evidence and framed gang members. His confessions led to the reversal of more than 100 criminal convictions.
Yet, when the first criminal case charged against Rampart cops came to trial, Perez was dropped from the witness list because he refused to answer questions stemming from new accusations that he was involved in several homicides. And prosecutors located five witnesses to the 1996 police action who were not gang members, but Judge Jacqueline A. Connor barred their testimony, as they were produced months after the case was filed.
Consequently, the only witnesses accusing the cops of misconduct that night are gang members — a circumstance the attorneys representing the four accused cops have seized upon. Using the same logic that proved so successful in the days Rafael Perez himself was taking the stand, the jury is being asked, Who do they believe: the sworn, uniformed officers of the LAPD, or the drug-using, crime-prone hoodlums of L.A.‘s street-gang underworld?
The attacks have been relentless, as all four defense attorneys have taken turns during cross-examination to delve into the criminal backgrounds, associations and lifestyles of the gang members brought by the prosecution to testify against police. It’s a strategy with implications reaching well beyond the current trial. If the gang members can effectively be disqualified as reliable witnesses, then police officers from the LAPD gang squad, even corrupt ones, will be all but immune from criminal prosecution.
Defense attorney Barry Levin, representing Sergeant Ortiz, has been the most aggressive in challenging the testimony of gang members. A former police officer himself, Levin is an intense interrogator, phrasing his questions in a strong, impatient voice, confronting inconsistency, challenging evasion, always homing in on his bottom line — that gang members are outside society and not to be trusted.
Levin showed off his technique in confronting Raul Munoz, a member of the Temple Street Gang who was deported to El Salvador after what Rafael Perez described as a bogus arrest. On the stand, Munoz testified about the events leading to his arrest, and then closed by saying that he‘d left the gang life behind. ”In El Salvador my life has switched,“ Munoz said. ”I’m a welder. I got married. I have a newborn son.“
Levin stepped to the podium and picked up the thread. ”What did you switch from?“ Levin ignored Munoz‘s vague response and pressed the point. ”Isn’t it true that the Temple Street Gang regularly commits murders?“
Munoz dissembled. ”I haven‘t heard about it.“
”Well, isn’t it true that they deal drugs?“
Munoz, looking cornered, finally assented.
Levin was just getting started. ”Isn‘t it true that most members of the Temple Street Gang are well-armed?“
”No,“ Munoz answered. ”Well, isn’t it true that they will often be found carrying guns or weapons?“ ”Yes,“ Munoz agreed.
Levin posed his questions not just to establish that Munoz was capable of breaking the law. That was already apparent: In previous testimony, Munoz had explained that he was in fact a felon in possession of a weapon — itself a felony offense — and had fled from the police the night of his arrest.
What Levin accomplished by challenging Munoz was to show him lying on the stand — Munoz purposely avoided discussing the nature of his gang‘s business, for example, or the fact that he had committed a drive-by shooting when he was 16 years old.
The refusal to discuss mob business leaves gang members particularly vulnerable to cross-examination. Divulging gang secrets is an offense that can get someone killed — especially if the witness is incarcerated and within easy reach of the Mexican Mafia.
Thus a defense attorney can demonstrate that a prosecution witness is, at the very least, less than forthcoming. Paul DePasquale, attorney for Brian Liddy, put that tactic to use by asking one gang member now doing time at the federal penitentiary at Leavenworth pointed questions about the Mexican Mafia. The witness cut him off: ”Excuse me, sir, I’m not going to answer those questions.“
DePasquale supplied his own answer while questioning another gang witness, whose memory had just turned fuzzy. ”You can‘t tell us whether you remember or not, because you can’t snitch off members of your own gang,“ he declared.
DePasquale explained in an interview that the goal of such cross-examination is simply ”to give a context for the jury to understand the world in which these events take place.“ In addition, DePasquale said, the defense attorneys need to balance the scales against suspicions that the police witnesses might be lying to protect their fellow officers. ”It relates to credibility, like the code of silence. I‘m seeking to bring out the extent to which people change their stories.“
The defense effort to undermine the gang members has provided much of the drama at the Rampart trial so far, in a case otherwise limited to labored reconstruction of the official record. Some of the exchanges are funny, some grim, while some open a rare window on the realities of mob life.
The defense attorneys make a point of displaying their contempt for the gang members called to testify. When Munoz said at one point that he had a job as a security guard, at Valley Plaza in Reseda, attorney Joel Isaacson laughed out loud. Levin then followed up from the podium. He asked what hours Munoz worked. When he said the graveyard shift, Levin asked him, ”So you walked through an empty mall to see that your buddies weren’t breaking in?“
It got to the point that Deputy District Attorney Laura Laesecke, herself a former gang prosecutor, felt compelled to enlist CRASH Officer Mark Richardson in shoring up the credibility of her gang witnesses. ”Sometimes at CRASH you rely on the statements of gang members, don‘t you?“ Laesecke asked. ”Yes,“ Richardson replied. ”If we have to.“
”Not all gang members do bad things all the time, do they?“ ”I don’t think there‘s anyone who does bad things all the time,“ Richardson answered.
If that reply suggested any humanity on the part of the gang members called to the witness stand, it made little impression on Levin. Often snide, sometimes sarcastic, Levin seemed at times to be demonstrating in the courtroom the kind of browbeating that Rampart officers are accused of on the street.
On one occasion in particular, Levin pushed a gang member into making an admission that, if it found its way back to the prison where he now resides, might get him killed.
The gang member said CRASH Officer Liddy had demanded his help in locating a gang member named Rascal. Otherwise, the gangster said, Liddy threatened to arrest him on false charges — not an uncommon allegation in the Rampart scandal. The gang member said he went along, guiding Liddy for fear of being sent to prison.
Levin saw an opening, and pounced. ”Isn’t it true that the worst thing you can do as a member of a street gang is be a snitch?“ ”Yes,“ the witness replied.
”Well,“ Levin said, ”you snitched on Rascal, didn‘t you?“
Asked the purpose of such searing cross-examination, Levin said, ”With every witness who testifies, their credibility is at issue. These are criminals who prey on innocent people, and the jury has a right to know that.“ When a reporter sought to ask a follow-up question, Levin made it clear he would only discuss the question in terms of black and white. ”Maybe you think that criminals who prey on innocent people are good people, but maybe the jury will disagree,“ Levin said.