Ramparts Scandal on Trial

Part 1: The Making of a Police Whitewash

Revolutionary Worker #1079, November 20, 2000, posted at http://rwor.org

It's an outrage! It's been more than a year of truth oozing out about one outrageous police act after another--murder, rape, drug dealing, bank robbery, assault, forced "confessions" and more, and all of it covered over by falsified police reports, lying in court and the infamous "code of silence" from the street cops all the way up to the chief of police himself. Now, after all that, there are signs that point to the likelihood that the four LAPD cops on trial in the first (and perhaps only) case brought as a result of the so-called "Rampart scandal" are going to walk free!

It shouldn't really come as a surprise, since all the different forces involved in the trial have the same interests--letting the cops off, rehabilitating the public image of the LAPD, and allowing the police to go about their business of repressing and brutalizing the people. You can see this in how the whole trial is stacked with cops and their affiliates: The defendants are all cops. Their attorneys are all long-time defenders of cops, and one is himself an ex-cop. The prosecutors make their living working closely with cops. The investigation to collect the evidence used in the trial was carried out by cops. Almost all the witnesses on both sides are cops. And the whole thing is being overseen by a judge who is pro-cop and married to a former gang prosecutor. This trial is nothing but cops and their co-conspirators allegedly going after cops and their co-conspirators!

As we go to press, the jury is scheduled to begin its third day of deliberations and has not yet reached a verdict. And it's still possible that the jurors will try to do the right thing and find at least some of the cops guilty--even though virtually everyone else involved in the trial has worked like hell to get them off. The charges the cops are facing are mainly two-bit technicalities, and they're not likely to get any prison time even if they are found guilty. But regardless of what the jury does, the events surrounding this trial signal the fact that the ruling class has reached some basic consensus that the Rampart scandal needs to come to an end.

What the Rampart Scandal Has Revealed

The LAPD's Rampart scandal began over a year ago. Rafael Pérez, who had been a Rampart CRASH anti-gang officer, copped a plea bargain to charges that he had stolen drugs from LAPD evidence lockers to help supply his personal drug sales network--he began to spill the beans about widespread corruption and brutality in the Rampart CRASH unit.

Pérez implicated dozens of cops in numerous crimes and acts of brutality. He told chilling tales of how this was regularly and systematically approved and facilitated by supervisors within the LAPD. He painted a picture of a systematic war being waged by CRASH officers against the people--especially the youth --in the Pico-Union neighborhood where Rampart Division is based.

After months of growing outrage among the people, and infighting and maneuvering within the ruling class over how to deal with the scandal, a handful of charges were finally filed against CRASH sergeants Brian Liddy and Edward Ortiz and CRASH officers Paul Harper and Michael Buchanan. This was based on testimony from their fellow CRASH officer Pérez, accusing them of "conspiracy to obstruct or pervert justice, perjury, and filing false police reports." The L.A. Times described Ortiz as "quarterbacking" the crimes and coverups of the CRASH cops. Translated into plain English, what this means is that these CRASH cops had:

Planned together and deliberately acted to send Raúl Muñoz and César Natividad to prison by falsifying evidence that Muñoz and Natividad struck Liddy and Buchanan with their truck while fleeing a police raid.

Picked up Allan Lobos, forced a gun allegedly used in a recent shooting against his fingers so his fingerprints would be on it, then wrote police reports claiming they'd found it stashed in a wheel well of a car near where Lobos had been hiding after they raided a group of youth one night.

And busted Nabil Hassan for possession of a loaded gun after pulling him over, searching his car against his wishes, then loading a gun belonging to him that he had been legally carrying in an unloaded condition in the trunk.

These incidents reveal the daily outrage of living under the gun of the Rampart cops. And while Muñoz, Natividad, Lobos and Hassan, along with nearly 100 other victims, have had their convictions overturned in the past year based on Pérez's accounts of how the busts were based on lying cops and planted evidence, what about the thousands upon thousands of others who have also been wrongly convicted? Why have only five cops been charged with any crime (the fifth is Pérez's former partner, Nino Durden), when at least 70 cops have been implicated in the scandal? How come there have been no charges stemming from the murder of Juan Saldaña, who was left to bleed to death while Sgt. Ortiz and his CRASH officers stood around getting their story straight? What about the severe police beating of Ismael Jimenez who was assaulted so brutally he vomited blood in the Rampart station? Or the rape of Tina R., who was stopped by two cops and threatened with arrest, then forced to get a motel room where she was assaulted?

And for each of these examples, there are probably hundreds and thousands more just like them, not only in Pico-Union, but all over LA. People who have been sweated because they "fit the profile." Vendors who the cops stole money from and whose property and livelihoods were destroyed. People who were forced to become snitches, who were labeled gang members and forced to pose for photos in gang poses to be used against them later. People who still languish in jail.

Erwin Chemerinsky, law school professor and a widely respected police reform advocate in L.A., recently issued an analysis of the LAPD's internal review of the scandal that raises important questions which have never been answered by the LAPD or anyone else in the ruling class: "How many officers in the Rampart Division CRASH unit participated in illegal activities? How many officers in this unit and in the Rampart Division knew of illegal activity and were complicit by their silence? How high within the Department was there some knowledge of illegal activities by Rampart officers? Was there similar illegal activity in other CRASH units, in other specialized units, and in other divisions?"

There have been no answers to these and a thousand other burning questions raised by the Rampart scandal. Instead, the authorities are working to acquit the cops and then declare the whole scandal over and done with.

A Closer Look at an Acquittal in the Making

Look at how the groundwork is being laid for not-guilty verdicts:

Undermining Pérez's revelations: The trial got underway in early October, and Pérez had been widely expected to be the star witness against the four cops. But just two weeks before jury selection, LAPD investigators leaked the fact that Sonia Flores, an ex-girlfriend of Pérez, had accused him of involvement in as many as four murders, and of transporting three of the bodies across the border to Tijuana and burying them in an area well known as a dumping ground for victims of Mexican drug cartels and the corrupt law enforcement officials working with them. Now Flores reportedly has recanted her accusations and says she made them up to punish Pérez because she felt jilted by him.

There is plenty to be suspicious about in all this. First of all, Flores has a history of testifying to benefit the police. She testified against five people who were tried for a 1996 gang shooting, helping to send them to jail for years. Pérez was one of the officers in charge of the murder investigation, and there is some evidence to indicate that Pérez got Flores to "identify" the five people charged in the murder after coaching her with photographs. Furthermore, there are allegations that Pérez himself was the actual shooter, and that he carried out the murder and subsequent frame-ups in order to eliminate competition for a growing drug sales operation run by himself and other Rampart CRASH officers. LAPD investigators had been interviewing Flores since at least February, and there is certainly the possibility that they got her to make up the allegations against Pérez, then "forgot" to tell prosecutors about her until the eve of trial--just in time to completely discredit Pérez and to throw the case against the cops into disarray--but without sufficient time to determine whether Flores was telling the truth.

Prosecutors considered whether they could "rehabilitate" Pérez as a witness and go forward with his testimony. But when defense attorneys for the cops made it clear they intended to grill Pérez on the murder allegations, Pérez's attorney announced that his client would plead the fifth and refuse to testify. If Pérez did this, it would set the stage for the judge to declare a mistrial.

So Pérez was never called. Instead, prosecutors put on a parade of police supervisors who bored jurors with testimony about LAPD administrative procedures--like how the department keeps attendance records (supposedly to prove that cop Buchanan was on vacation the day he claimed to have witnessed other CRASH cops bust someone for possession of a loaded gun). They followed this with a string of Rampart CRASH officers who worked with the defendants, but conveniently "couldn't remember" much of anything about any of the frame-ups that led to the charges against the defendants. It was almost as if the prosecutors called these other cops to help strengthen the case for the defense.

Only one of the victims of the police frame-ups and lies--Raúl Muñoz--was called to testify by the prosecution. He had to be brought back from El Salvador because he had been deported after serving time in prison for the phony charges leveled against him. And then when the lawyers for the cops cross-examined him, prosecutors sat back and did nothing while Muñoz and his friends were slandered as violent gang members, liars and thugs. And defense attorneys were allowed to run off at the mouth during closing arguments about how "we all can sleep at night because of the heroic efforts" of the cops.

The Judge: Judge Jacqueline Conner, who is presiding over the trial of the four cops, made a series of outrageous rulings in the trial to push things toward acquittals. For example she ruled that if Pérez ended up taking the stand, the defense would be allowed to introduce evidence that Pérez failed five lie detector tests-- normally lie detector test results are completely inadmissible as evidence. She also barred prosecutors from calling five young women who witnessed the defendants framing people. The LAPD "forgot" to turn over the names of these women to the prosecutors until only a couple weeks before jury selection. Then defense attorneys argued that prosecutors failed to provide the names of these witnesses the required 30 days before trial--even though this was clearly the fault of LAPD. The judge promptly ruled the women couldn't testify at trial--when she could have simply delayed the trial a few weeks to give defense attorneys time to prepare for cross-examination.

Judge Conner also legalized jury tampering in the name of making jury duty more "user friendly" by permitting defense attorneys to present opening statements at the start of jury selection. Jury selection usually is limited to questions to find out if jurors will be "fair and impartial" and if they know anything about the case or the people involved that might affect their judgment. But instead, Judge Conner allowed defense attorneys to discuss all the details of the case with prospective jurors before a jury was even selected. And they were also allowed to repeat allegations that Pérez was guilty of up to four murders, and to do everything else they could to set up the jurors from the beginning to be sympathetic to the cops on trial.

Judge Conner also allowed jury members to raise questions during the trial, which in turn were shared with the attorneys and witnesses on the stand. To their credit, a number of jurors questioned the poor memory of the police witnesses who were supposed to be testifying against the officers on trial, and also expressed doubts about the incredibly precise memory of one of the police defendants who remembered everything from an incident more than four years ago, even down to the exact clothes worn by the youth he helped bust and then send to prison. So it's clear that not all jurors were buying into what the cops are saying.

The problem here is not that the judge did something that's not usually done in trials--because "business as usual" in the courtroom isn't in the interests of the people. Jurors are usually denied the opportunity to ask questions. And in this case the jurors' questions were used to give defense attorneys the opportunity to sharpen their case and deal with the jury's skepticism, and it undoubtedly allowed the judge to shape the instructions given to the jury before they began to deliberate so she could try to guide them toward the verdicts she wants.

The Defense: The defense attorneys are long-time attorneys for the police. One of them was himself an officer with LAPD for a dozen years. They have extensive experience trying to paint their clients as "decent, law-abiding" people who "risk their lives every day for all of us."

The Prosecutors: District Attorney Gil Garcetti didn't even decide which prosecutors would be trying the case until a week before jury selection began. So the people prosecuting the case got it just before trial. In addition, the Assistant DA who headed up the Rampart investigation in the DA's office and was responsible for overall prosecution strategy suddenly withdrew a week before the trial began "for health reasons." And their case relied on evidence provided by the LAPD investigators, including mountains of material from the LAPD presented at the last minute.

But even without the decision to shut down the Rampart scandal, there is a fundamental problem with the prosecutors trying this case: the prosecutors and police are on the same side in this war on the people and work hand in hand to lock people up. Cops arrest people and provide "evidence" of supposed guilt, and then prosecutors rely on police lies and phony evidence to send the defendants to jail. It is openly talked about in the press that prosecutors knew years ago that Rampart cops lied on the witness stand about the "gang members" they arrested and manufactured evidence to put them away--but did nothing because it helped keep the incarceration railroad running on time. The last thing any prosecutor wants to do is to go after the very cops that enable him or her to win their cases. In fact, a recent analysis of cases of police misconduct referred to the DA's office for criminal action revealed that between 1995 and the fall of this year, prosecutors declined to prosecute 92% of the time. And in cases where there were allegations of excessive force, the DA declined to prosecute the cops nearly 99% of the time!

The LAPD did the investigation and was responsible for what evidence was and wasn't turned over in this trial--against their own cops. The only ones to ever investigate those Rampart crimes have been the police. They determined the release of the Flores accusations against Pérez, even though they've known about her for a year. And they controlled what evidence was and wasn't available to the prosecution, and when it was made available. It won't be surprising if the cops in this trial end up walking free.

Watch the RW for continuing coverage of the Rampart scandal.

This article is posted in English and Spanish on Revolutionary Worker Online
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