Los Angeles: The Rampart Reversal

Revolutionary Worker #1088, January 28, 2001, posted at http://rwor.org

The outrages continue in the LAPD Rampart scandal! Last November, a jury came down with a verdict of "Guilty, guilty, guilty" on three cops from the notorious CRASH unit of LAPD's Rampart Division. These cops were not charged with the most serious crimes exposed through the scandal, including murder. Still, the fact that a jury found the three brutal cops guilty of "conspiracy to obstruct or pervert justice, perjury, and filing false police reports" was a blow to the system.

But, a few weeks later, L.A. Superior Court Judge Jacqueline Conner simply threw out the jury's verdict. The cops--CRASH sergeants Edward Ortiz and Brian Liddy and officer Michael Buchanan--had been stormtroopers in the war on the people, especially in the immigrant barrio of Pico-Union. Ortiz, in particular, was deeply involved in many of the police cover-ups of shootings and other foul deeds. In one incident in 1996, Ortiz kept an ambulance from coming to the aid of Juan Manuel Saldana, an unarmed man who was shot during a police invasion of an apartment building. Saldana bled to death while the cops put together a cover-up and planted a gun next to him.

The judge's decision allowed Ortiz and the other two CRASH cops to walk. And she snuck in the decision at midnight on Friday before the long Christmas weekend.

The Rampart scandal began in September 1999 when Rafael Pérez, an officer in the "anti-gang" CRASH unit, copped a plea bargain to charges that he had stolen drugs from a police station in order to supply his own drug sales network. Pérez began to spill the beans about the CRASH unit--and what came out was a sordid story of police murder, robbery, assaults and frame-ups against the people. And behind the CRASH cops were the higher-level officers, judges, prosecutors, and police commissioners who rewarded them, worked with them on their bogus convictions, and covered up for them. Since the scandal first broke, the authorities have had to fire or suspend dozens of cops; over 100 victims of police frame-ups have had their cases dismissed, and thousands of other convictions have been cast in doubt.

Ortiz, Liddy, and Buchanan are the first--and so far the only--CRASH cops to be put on trial in the Rampart scandal. (A fourth cop was acquitted, and another cop faces serious charges.) This criminal trio had accused Raúl Muñoz and César Natividad of driving at them and hitting them with a pick-up truck. Muñoz and Natividad were sent to prison. In their decision last November, the jury found that the cops had lied about the incident and framed up the two Latino men.

The jury's verdict immediately came under attack by the cops' lawyers and by Judge Conner herself. The first challenge involved an alternate juror who didn't take part in the deliberations or the verdicts. This alternate told a story about having lunch with a regular juror and claimed that the juror (who became the foreman) said he thought the cops were guilty. Under this system's laws, jurors are not allowed to talk about the evidence or form opinions about the case until they deliberate--so if this supposed conversation had taken place, it would have been cause for juror "misconduct" and a mistrial. The judge hauled the jurors back to court and subjected them to questioning under oath--but no evidence could be found of the alleged conversation.

The quest for a whitewash continued. For five weeks, the judge allowed the cops' lawyers to file documents attacking the verdicts. The judge and the cops' lawyers focused on a single question--the accusation by the cops that Muñoz and Natividad were guilty of "assault with force likely to produce great bodily injury." The judge allowed the cops' lawyers to present affidavits (written statements from the jurors) which supposedly showed that the jurors disagreed among themselves--about whether they thought the cops had lied outright about getting hit and injured by the truck, or the cops had lied about the extent of their injuries from the incident. Judges almost never allow such affidavits. In overturning the jury's decision, the judge accused the jurors of "misconduct" for coming down with a guilty verdict despite this supposed disagreement. She said that the jury did not go through the right "logical" steps in reaching a decision.

On the streets of L.A., people are asking, "Can a judge throw out a jury verdict just like that?" Actually, this system's own laws say it is not legal for a judge to consider a jury's "mental process" in deciding to overturn a verdict. And even mainstream reporters and legal commentators described the judge's decision with words like "unusual," "extraordinary," and "rare."

To get around the fact that she had obviously considered the jury's "mental process," the judge declared that the affidavits taken from the jurors were "uncontested facts." This move also makes it more difficult for the prosecution to appeal the judge's ruling. On December 11, the Los Angeles DA said he would appeal the ruling. But according to legal analysts, the way the judge framed her decision put roadblocks against a successful appeal, as well as a filing of new charges against the three cops. The DA's office said it would have to "carefully study" the judge's ruling before making any decisions on new charges.

The judge put further obstacles against appeal by saying that she had made a major error during the trial. Before reaching the verdict, the jury asked to have the court reporter read back testimony about the cops' claims of "great bodily injury." At the time, the judge refused the request, saying the question was irrelevant. Now, she says that this question is central and that her decision contributed to the jury's "incorrect verdict."

In reality, the people on the jury had to cut through the mountain of self-serving lies of the cop defendants and cop witnesses. The whole trial was stacked with cops and their supporters: cop defendants whose lawyers were all long-time police defenders; evidence that was collected by cops; witnesses who were almost all cops; a judge for a pro-police stand. But the jury refused to go along with the attempts by the cops' lawyers to discredit testimony from victims of police frame-ups by painting them as ruthless criminals. They would not allow the trial to end up in an acquittal of the cops.

The jury foreman, Victor Flores, disputed the judge's claims about the jury and their decision. He said, "We had decided as jurors that the accident never happened. So therefore, 'great bodily injury' was really irrelevant." He explained that the jurors relied on a videotape taken from a helicopter that showed the cops were lying about getting hit by Muñoz and Natividad's truck. He said, "We decided, yes, there was a [police] code of silence." And he revealed, "From the beginning I felt [the judge] was on the defense side." Another juror said, "A lot of us felt that [the cops] fabricated the story."

The Rampart scandal was touched off by struggle within the ruling class over how to deal with the problem of corruption within the LAPD. Certain sections of the power structure brought some exposure of the Rampart cops out into the open in order to push for certain changes in the LAPD. These forces were not upset about the brutality of the cops--the ruling class as a whole needs cops who are ready, willing and able to kill and brutalize in order to maintain the unjust status quo. But at a time when the rulers are trying to tighten control over the masses and need a disciplined and loyal police force to carry out this control and suppression, they face a growing problem across the country of cops who want to profit from the criminal activity they are supposed to control. Some sections of the ruling class are very concerned that police corruption could lead to further anti-police sentiments among the people.

During the trial of the three CRASH cops, it looked like the power structure as a whole wanted an acquittal--in order to rehabilitate the image of the LAPD and allow the police to fully carry out their business of brutalizing and suppressing the people. But then came the jury's verdict.

Now, it seems that some sections of the ruling class are worried that the way Judge Conner blatantly threw out the jury's verdict may be widely seen as exactly what it is--another cover-up of police crimes. The old DA, Gil Garcetti, who lost the election last November, had often clashed with LAPD Chief Bernard Parks over the Rampart scandal. Parks said that he supports the new DA's decision to appeal the judge's ruling. The LA Times has also called for a new indictment and trial of the cops. On the other hand, Judge Conner was not acting on her own--behind her are other forces in the power structure who didn't want the guilty verdicts against the cops to stand.

Such infighting may lead to further revelations of some of the ugliness and brutality of the system and its pig enforcers. But, as the RW wrote at the time of the trial in November, "The authorities have their own reasons and class interests for exposing it, and it is a big mistake for the people to think we can rely on them to achieve any real justice. We should, however, seize on those times when they allow a little truth to come out to drag the whole truth into the light of day. We, who are the victims of all this police brutality and criminality, know the truth of what has gone down and what goes on. Only we can demand justice without compromise. That's why we say, only the people can stop police brutality, repression, and the criminalization of a generation!" (From "Rampart Scandal on Trial," RW #1079 and 1080; also available online at rwor.org)

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