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Crime & Courts

Court ruling allows police to be held liable in withholding evidence

Ruling against ex-LAPD officials stands in case of Michael Walker, innocent man who spent two years in jail

The LAPD detectives should have known they had the wrong man.

They had arrested Michael Walker, a 49-year-old homeless man, as a suspect in the "Demand Note Robberies" — a string of retail store holdups involving misspelled threats that all fit a distinctive pattern.

Each time, the suspect would pretend to be a customer, then present a menacing note and run off with cash handed over by a frightened clerk.

But while Walker was in jail, the "Demand Note Robberies" continued: a fried chicken restaurant, then a Burger King. On Sept. 15, 2005, another man, Stanley Smith, was caught fleeing from a similar robbery at a Blockbuster Video store. Smith confessed to committing about two robberies a week to feed his cocaine addiction.

The Los Angeles Police Department detectives, Steven Moody and Robert Pulido, did not inform prosecutors of the new developments. Instead, they submitted an investigative report that said the crime spree had ended with Walker's arrest.

Walker's attorneys eventually caught on and asked for Smith's fingerprints to be tested against those left at a video game store robbery attributed to their client. The prints matched Smith's, and prosecutors immediately dismissed the case against Walker.

By that time, he had been in jail for more than two years.

A federal civil court jury awarded Walker $106,000 along with nearly $400,000 for legal fees and court costs, and the U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals affirmed. On Monday, the U.S. Supreme Court declined to hear the detectives' appeal, allowing the 9th Circuit Court judgment to stand.

The outcome puts police on notice that they may be civilly liable if a court finds they have withheld information that clearly reveals a suspect is being wrongly jailed. The Los Angeles city attorney's office had argued that because Walker was freed before his trial, withholding the evidence did not violate his constitutional rights.

Walker died in 2011 of alcohol-related problems, so the money will go to his 81-year-old mother, Mary Tatum.

"What they did went against everything that was right," Tatum said of the LAPD detectives. "They didn't use good judgment. They skirted their responsibilities."

She said her son had been offered a plea deal that would have allowed him to get out of jail, but he refused to accept it.

"One of the most basic liberties we have is not to be wrongly imprisoned," said Erwin Chemerinsky, a constitutional law scholar and dean of UC Irvine School of Law. "Here, the plaintiff was wrongly imprisoned in large part because of police misconduct."

Amy Jo Field, the assistant city attorney who represented the detectives, declined to comment.

A Los Angeles district attorney's spokeswoman would not comment on whether her office is reviewing any other cases worked by the detectives.

John Burton, a civil attorney for Walker and his mother, credited Walker's public defender, Alla Eksler, for persisting until she found evidence of her client's innocence.

"The LAPD did not just withhold information that could have freed an innocent man. The detective deliberately ignored it," Burton said.

Walker, an ex-felon who kept his belongings in a shopping cart, entered an EB Games store in the Crenshaw area of South Los Angeles on Aug. 16, 2005. A few days before, the store had been robbed by someone fitting the description of the "Demand Note Robber" — a black male of slender build about 5 feet seven inches tall.

Store workers identified Walker as the robber, and Moody also believed that the man on surveillance footage and in photographs was Walker.

Moody and Pulido, his boss, suspected Walker in 13 area robberies, including those of a Taco Bell, a McDonald's, two Payless shoe stores and several video stores, according to an investigative report filed by Moody.

Soon after Walker was arrested and incarcerated, a Golden Bird chicken restaurant was robbed by a man using a demand note. Pulido assigned the case to Moody.

The same day of the Golden Bird robbery, a Burger King was robbed in a similar manner. Moody did not handle that case but should have seen a crime alert distributed to detectives, according to Pulido.

When Smith was arrested on Sept. 14, 2005, he matched the description of someone who had just robbed a Blockbuster Video in Lawndale. He had a demand note in his possession that read almost identically — including misspellings — to one used in a previous robbery, according to an LAPD investigative report that linked him to 17 robberies.

One of the demand notes in a robbery attributed to Walker also contained similar language and misspellings.

"This is a robbery unload your teler hurry before I strot shooting," read the note found on Smith.

In a 2009 deposition, Moody defended his actions, saying he did not associate the subsequent robberies with Walker.

"I stand by what I wrote in the report," he said. "The robberies that I investigated that I attributed to Mr. Walker had stopped. Other robberies had occurred, yes. But you know what, I wasn't asked that question. I wasn't aware of the other robberies that were occurring."

Pulido said in his deposition that he thought the Smith crimes were part of a separate string because detectives had dubbed him "The Five Second Robber." He acknowledged that he was notified of Smith's arrest and that Smith's description matched that of Walker.

In its Sept. 14, 2014, opinion, the 9th Circuit Court ruled that Walker's lengthy detention was because of the detectives' failure to turn over exculpatory evidence, which violated his 14th Amendment right to due process.

In their petition to the Supreme Court, Field and City Atty. Michael Feuer argued that the appellate court's interpretation of due process was too broad.

Chemerinsky said he was not surprised that the Supreme Court declined the case, because it declines most cases and because the detectives' conduct was "so egregious" that other circuit courts would probably reach the same decision.

After leaving the LAPD, Moody worked as a judicial marshal in Las Vegas. In 2012, he was promoted to security administrator for a courthouse complex that includes the Nevada Supreme Court and the Eighth Judicial District Court.

In announcing his appointment, the chief judge said that his "outstanding work" over 22 years with LAPD makes "him well suited to meet the challenges."

Pulido also no longer works for the LAPD. Neither Pulido nor Moody could be reached for comment.

richard.winton@latimes.com

cindy.chang@latimes.com

Times staff writer David Savage contributed to this report.

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