D.A. Seeks to Reinstate Rampart Case Convictions

Friday, January 12, 2001


Los Angeles County Dist. Atty. Steve Cooley announced Thursday that he will appeal a judge’s order throwing out convictions of three LAPD police officers accused of framing gang members–keeping alive the first prosecution in an ongoing investigation into corruption at the LAPD.
Cooley filed a brief notice of appeal in anticipation of a hearing that is scheduled for Tuesday before Superior Court Judge Jacqueline Connor.
“We believe Judge Connor erred in her ruling overturning the jury verdicts convicting Sgts. [Edward] Ortiz and [Brian] Liddy and Officer [Michael] Buchanan,” Cooley said in a short statement released with the notice of appeal.
The appeal could take up to a year for the state Court of Appeal to resolve, according to legal experts who say it will be difficult for Cooley’s office to win given that the judge has partly blamed herself for an error that led her to throw out the convictions. .
On Dec. 22, in a highly unusual move, Connor released a 19-page ruling in which she wrote that the jury’s verdict had been compromised by an apparent misunderstanding of a common phrase of police slang, and that she had committed a “fatal error” by not recognizing the misunderstanding.
She said jurors had been confused by a line in a police report that led them to believe that the officers had claimed they suffered great bodily injury when hit by a pickup truck driven by gang members. The officers never made such a claim and the prosecutors never argued that they had.
Instead, the short line “ADW w/ GBI” on the report was police slang. It meant that the officers claimed they suffered from assault with a deadly weapon “with force likely to produce great bodily injury.” Several jurors later signed affidavits saying they were confused by the abbreviation.
In its appeal, the prosecution is expected to argue that the judge erred by relying on the affidavits, compiled by defense attorneys, in violation of court rules that seek to protect the jury’s deliberations from scrutiny.
If Cooley prevails, the convictions would be reinstated. If he loses, he could still retry the officers. Cooley also could have gone straight to a retrial or dismissed the charges completely.
Cooley, who took office Dec. 4, declined to discuss his reasoning Thursday but a day earlier he had told a reporter that he was letting the facts of the controversial case, not politics, guide his decision.
“If you start doing that–letting collateral factors sway you–you are probably going to make the wrong decision. You listen to all the parties, then you put that aside and try to figure out, based on the facts of the case, what is the right thing to do,” Cooley said.
The three officers were convicted in November of conspiring to frame gang members after prosecutors alleged they made up a story that they had been hit by a pickup truck to frame gang members. Their convictions were the first ones stemming from the LAPD’s Rampart corruption scandal focusing on accusations that rogue cops routinely framed suspects.
LAPD Chief Bernard C. Parks had urged Cooley to continue the prosecution, and Thursday his department issued a statement of approval.
“The Los Angeles Police Department is very supportive of the decision . . . to challenge Judge Connor’s ruling,” the statement said. “The department is of the belief that the D.A.’s office will act in a manner that is in the best interest of justice and the people of the Los Angeles community.”
Defense attorney Harland Braun, who represented Buchanan, reacted harshly, charging that the new D.A. “took the easy way out.”
“It’s just an attempt to stall and delay the inevitable,” Braun said. “He didn’t want to try it because it would be a Steve Cooley loss.”
Several legal experts said an appeal makes sense, even if Cooley loses.
If the new D.A. had let Connor’s decision go unchallenged, it could precipitate similar challenges to jury verdicts, former Los Angeles County Dist. Atty. Ira Reiner said.
He said the first thing defense attorneys would do after guilty verdicts is try to interview jurors about their deliberations. He also said he believes Connor violated court rules barring a judge from invading the thought processes of jurors.
“The language she used [in her ruling] was an effort to do indirectly that which could not be done directly–invade the jury’s deliberative process.”
In her ruling, Connor said she did not base her decision on the deliberative process. Rather, she based it on the fact that jurors said, in the uncontested affidavits, that they could not agree on whether the officers were hit by the truck. “The fact that they did not reach agreement is admissible,” the judge wrote.
Reiner said there “is a very good chance” Connor would be reversed because “courts of appeal are not at all anxious to expand the scope of invading jury deliberations. If you allow a crack, then there will be a flood.”
Santa Monica defense lawyer Gigi Gordon countered that it would be “extremely hard” for the district attorney office’s to persuade an appellate court to reverse Connor.
“Her decision is extremely detailed and very fact-intensive,” Gordon said. “It is clear that extraordinary thought and preparation went into the writing of the opinion.”
Moreover, Gordon said it was “extraordinary” for Connor to admit that she erred when she brushed aside a question from the jurors on the great bodily injury issue. “No appellate court will second-guess” such an admission of error by a judge, Gordon said.
Loyola University law professor Laurie Levenson said Cooley’s decision is a sound one.
“By deciding to appeal, he can back the troops [on the case] without making the difficult decision of whether to retry the case. It may be an uphill battle, but he has nothing to lose by appealing.
“It puts things on hold,” Levenson said, and while the appeal is underway Cooley “can reevaluate this case and other [potential] Rampart cases.”

Times staff writer Matt Lait contributed to this story.

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