Sitting in the same patrol car in which she was struck by gunfire, Sarah Pina-Ruiz appeared to change her testimony during the Sagon Penn murder trial Thursday as she reconstructed her view of two police officers getting shot.
At a demonstration in a county parking garage across from the courthouse, Pina-Ruiz showed jurors the precise location, in relation to the car, of Agent Donovan Jacobs sitting on top of Penn. She directed defense attorney Milton Silverman and an aide, who were dressed in jump suits, to place themselves on the ground parallel to the driver’s side of the car. One at a time, each juror took Pina-Ruiz’s position in the front seat, in clear sight of the spot where Penn shot Jacobs in the neck.
When she drew the same position Wednesday on a courtroom display, Pina-Ruiz put Jacobs and Penn at an angle to the car. Most prosecution witnesses also have testified that Jacobs and Penn were facing away from the car. Such a position would have obstructed her view of the police shootings, which Pina-Ruiz has dramatically recounted in court.
Penn is charged with one count of murder and three counts of attempted murder for fatally shooting Agent Thomas Riggs on March 31, 1985, in Southeast San Diego and wounding Jacobs and Pina-Ruiz, who accompanied Riggs as a civilian observer.
Thursday’s reenactment was part of a busy day in court that included a demonstration by Penn’s martial arts instructor and, over vigorous defense objections, testimony from San Diego Police Chief Bill Kolender.
Moments before Kolender took the stand, Silverman and Deputy Dist. Atty. Michael Carpenter engaged in a shouting match before Superior Court Judge Ben W. Hamrick. Silverman argued that because Kolender has no direct knowledge of the case, his comments would be self-serving and of no benefit to the jury.
“When I asked Mr. Carpenter why Chief Kolender should be called, he smiled and said, ‘Cop killer,’ ” Silverman said.
“I dispute that,” Carpenter shouted angrily. “That is not true. That is an out and out lie.”
“No, it’s not,” replied Silverman. “I will swear under the penalty of perjury that it’s true.”
“I will swear, too,” Carpenter shot back. “That’s not true.”
Once the sparring subsided, Hamrick ruled that he would permit Kolender to testify.
“As chief of police, what he expects of his officers assigned in Southeast San Diego as opposed to Point Loma or the La Jolla area (is relevant),” Hamrick said. “I suspect procedures with gang members or known heroin addicts are different than a little old lady who is pulled over in La Jolla for a traffic ticket.”
Kolender told the jury of police problems with gang activity, violence and family disturbances in the city’s Southeast neighborhoods. He said that youth gangs are responsible for an overwhelming number of narcotics crimes, robberies, assaults and murders.
Jacobs testified earlier this week that he stopped Penn’s truck because one of the black passengers appeared to be wearing gang “colors.” Testimony during the trial has established that neither Penn nor any of the other people in the truck belong to a gang.
Under cross-examination, Kolender said that he disapproves of his police officers saying the word “nigger” and would discipline any officers for using racial slurs. (Kolender has said outside of court that he has not made any inquiries into allegations by numerous witnesses that Jacobs repeatedly called Penn “a nigger” and “boy” before the shootings.)
Jacobs testified Wednesday that he has never used the word “nigger” during his seven-year law enforcement career.
Kolender also stated that Police Department policy calls for officers to carry shotguns in their patrol cars.
Pina-Ruiz, who has filed a personal-injury lawsuit against the City of San Diego and Penn, said Thursday that she wouldn’t have hesitated to shoot Penn if Riggs’ patrol car had been equipped with a shotgun. She said Riggs told her at the start of the shift that he did not carry a shotgun because they are “useless.”
At the end of the day, martial arts instructor James A. Wilson testified that Penn, before he was knocked to the ground, could easily have killed Jacobs and Riggs using his extensive martial arts training. But Wilson said Penn was taught not to use his skills unless he was confronted with a life-or-death situation.
Wilson, a San Diego attorney who runs the Southwestern School of Taekwondo, said Penn spent five years studying the martial arts before quitting in 1983. He said students must not smoke, drink or use profanity as a minimum requirement to apply for the school.
Wilson said Penn was an excellent competitor who graduated to the rank of brown belt and possessed the ability to compete for a spot on the 1988 U.S. Olympic taekwondo team.
The jury was escorted to an area in front of the court’s fourth-floor elevators to witness a brief exhibition by Wilson, who had changed into a white martial arts outfit. Wilson used his arms to easily thwart several overhead baton swings by Silverman.
The demonstration supported defense claims that Penn fended off numerous blows from Jacobs and Riggs without incurring serious bruises. A doctor and a nurse who had examined Penn testified last week that, based on Penn’s injuries, he was not the victim of a beating. The physician, Barbara Groves, said she would have expected Penn to have suffered a broken arm if he had been hit hard by a police baton.
Pina-Ruiz testified Thursday that Riggs struck Penn with his night stick four or five times. That estimate differed from her earlier testimony during a preliminary hearing, when she said Riggs hit Penn once.
The discrepancy was one of many that Silverman brought out during cross-examination of Pina-Ruiz. She denied ever telling a police detective that Penn said, “I’m going to kill you,” before shooting Jacobs in the neck. And she said Penn did not say anything before he shot her twice through the car window, contradicting testimony by other prosecution witnesses that Penn told Pina-Ruiz: “You’re a witness.”
Pina-Ruiz recalled for the first time Thursday that Jacobs told Penn: “Put your hands behind your back or I’m going to kick your ass.” She had failed to recall any such comments during previous testimony or police interviews.