Photo by Slobodan Dimitrov
The day after Police Chief Bernard Parks announced that a corrupt officer had implicated others in a scandal involving unprovoked shootings and false testimony, the District Attorney’s Office filed court papers seeking the release of Javier Ovando, a gang member who’d been shot, framed and sent off to prison.
In the four weeks since, public defenders and other defense advocates have been wondering about other people jailed by the officers from the Rampart CRASH (Community Resources Against Street Hoodlums) anti-gang unit.
Representatives of District Attorney Gil Garcetti say their office is working as quickly as possible to review the possibly tainted prosecutions stemming from the gang squad. But defense advocates say Garcetti is moving too slowly.
“The primary responsibility for these cases resides with the cops and the district attorney,” said Cathy Dreyfuss, directing attorney for Indigent Criminal Defense Appointments (ICDA), a program run by the state bar that serves as a backstop to the Public Defender’s Office in supplying legal representation to poor defendants.
“These guys are sitting in prison on the basis of false testimony because the lawyers at the District Attorney’s Office are too busy,” Dreyfuss charged.
Garcetti spokeswoman Sandi Gibbons responded that, in the past week, her office had sent out 110 letters notifying attorneys of cases, involving four Rampart officers, that might have been compromised.
Gibbons said similar letters relating to Rafael Perez, the CRASH-unit officer now testifying against his former colleagues, went out last year after Perez was himself arrested on drug charges.
Attorneys at the Public Defender’s Office, however, say they have been notified of cases relating to only two officers besides Perez, not four, and are impatient for the rest.
The two officers named in letters to the Public Defender’s Office were Brian Hewitt and Ethan Cohan; they were involved in 242 and 149 criminal cases, respectively. Tamar Toister, the public defender who represented Ovando, said she was speaking for herself and not for her office as a whole, but added that she has received no roster of cases involving Nino Durden, a past partner of Perez whom Perez implicated in shooting Ovando.
The addition of Cohan and Hewitt is especially troubling because authorities knew of their alleged wrongdoing months before notifying any defense attorneys. The two officers were fired from the force in “late June or July,” according to the LAPD, after full board-of-rights hearings supported the dismissal.
Cohan and Hewitt were fired for their roles in the beating of a suspect inside the Rampart station, in a case unrelated to Perez. Defense attorneys want all of the officers’ names — and details of the possibly flawed cases — involving the Rampart station.
“The LAPD, the D.A., now they know they’ve got a problem — so why are they continuing to drag their feet?” asked Toister.
Asked to respond, Gibbons said her office was moving as quickly as possible to react to the fast-moving police scandal: “We’re only as good as the information we get.” So the LAPD did not notify the district attorney that it suspected its officers had arrested some on false charges? “We found out the same way you did — at the press advisory in September.”
Asked late Tuesday why Chief Parks did not notify the D.A. earlier that he, Parks, had learned that some of his officers were dirty, an LAPD spokesman said to put the question in writing and await a response later in the week.
To public defenders and other criminal-defense attorneys, the delayed access to information about the Rampart cases reflects a broader problem of L.A. law enforcement — judges and prosecutors, as well as cops, bending the rules in order to win convictions.
“This kind of acceptance of false testimony — ‘testilying,’ as they call it — has been going on for years,” said Dreyfuss at the ICDA.
A case in point, and one that goes to the heart of the current scandal, is the 1997 prosecution of Ubaldo Gutierrez, a onetime gang member who was identified as a target by Rafael Perez and arrested on charges of possession of rock cocaine.
“Perez would stop him all the time and take pictures of him and that sort of thing,” said Mearl Lottman, the public defender who had the case.
According to Lottman, the case rested solely on the testimony of Perez, who said that he encountered Gutierrez at 9:30 one evening hanging out in an alley with five other Latinos. Perez said that when he approached, the other men scattered, but that instead of running, Gutierrez froze. Perez also testified that he saw Gutierrez “drop a bunch of rocks onto the ground, right in front of him,” according to Lottman.
The case went to trial all the way to closing arguments, Lottman said, and likely would have resulted in conviction because “the officer’s word is considered by the jury to be fact,” but was derailed at the last minute when prosecutor Michael Kraut requested a dismissal.
“The basis was he said that he had found some paper — some type of a log, he never introduced it — that showed the testimony was untrue,” Lottman said.
The public defender said he was relieved at the result because “Ubaldo was 20 or 21 at the time and could have gone to jail for five years. It’s scary.”
But Lottman also said he found the case disturbing because no official action was taken by the judge in the case — Fred Wapner — or by the District Attorney’s Office to punish Perez for lying on the stand. “You would think that if someone’s found committing perjury, especially an officer, they would do something about it.”
Wapner said he remembers the prosecutor asking for charges to be dismissed.
“My memory is that he did it because he found out that the officer was lying about who his partner was, based on records he found at the station,” Wapner said. “It was withdrawn because of the D.A.’s belief that the officer wasn’t telling the truth.”
Wapner defended his handling of the case, and said it was not his duty to see that the officer was investigated for alleged perjury.
“It’s not incumbent on me to do that,” he said. “It’s not incumbent on any judge to do that. That’s not how the system works.”
Calls to the D.A.’s Kraut were referred to Sandi Gibbons, who said, “I can’t tell you any more about that case because it’s under investigation.”
For her part, Toister is skeptical of police and prosecutors being left to investigate themselves: “I can imagine telling that to someone in state prison who was wrongly convicted — don’t worry, the police are investigating it.”