Penn Case Witness Tells of Officer’s Aggressive Actions

Times Staff Writer

A defense witness in the murder trial of Sagon Penn testified Tuesday that San Diego Police Agent Donovan Jacobs was “looking for trouble” during an encounter shortly before he stopped Penn’s pickup truck.

“It bothered me,” Craig Mercer said of Jacobs’ aggressive behavior when the officer responded to a call of a man with a gun in Southeast San Diego on March 31, 1985. "(Jacobs) pulled his night stick out . . . and was swinging it around like he was Sir Galahad or somebody.

“I just couldn’t understand why a police officer would be swinging his stick around on a routine stop. To me, there was no reason for that type of action when he’s approaching two girls and a 17-year-old boy.”

Jacobs and Agent Thomas Riggs had approached Mercer’s stepson, Glen Edward Jones, 17, in response to a report that a black gang member had threatened the teen-ager with a handgun. Mercer said that Jacobs left the scene in a hurry, screeching the tires of his patrol car.


Jacobs has testified that he pulled over Penn’s pickup truck moments later when he spotted a passenger whom he took for a gang member. Several witnesses have testified that Jacobs provoked Penn by repeatedly beating him with his baton and calling him “nigger” before Penn grabbed Jacobs’ revolver and began firing.

Penn is charged with murder in the fatal shooting of Riggs and attempted murder for wounding Jacobs and Sarah Pina-Ruiz, an observer who was riding along in Riggs’ patrol car that day.

The seventh week of testimony in the trial began Tuesday with Superior Court Judge Ben W. Hamrick rejecting a defense motion to play a tape recording of statements Penn gave police on the night of the shootings.

Defense attorney Milton Silverman said that Penn “spilled his guts” to police as he recounted the events that led up to the shootings.

But prosecutor Michael Carpenter described Penn’s statements as “self-serving” and argued that Penn was merely making excuses for shooting three people.

Hamrick ruled that Penn had time to reflect on the shootings before making the hourlong statement to investigators. The judge noted that, after the shootings, Penn drove Jacobs’ police car to his grandfather’s house for counseling and then surrendered at police headquarters.

On the tape, Penn told police that Jacobs punched him and started hitting him with a night stick after Penn tried to hand the officer his wallet with his driver’s license inside. The defendant said he pleaded with the officers to stop hitting him and that the first shot went off when Riggs kicked his arm as he was holding Jacobs’ revolver.

Penn denied that he meant to harm the officers.


“I want them to live,” he says on the tape. “Life is very important to me.”

Hamrick’s decision means that Silverman will be forced to call his client to the stand if he wants the jury to hear Penn’s story. Silverman said he has not decided whether Penn will testify.

“I think the tapes should have come in under the rules of evidence,” said Silverman, who added that the statement could be played for jurors if Penn takes the stand. Silverman said he considered Hamrick’s decision to bar the tapes grounds for appeal.

On Tuesday, Silverman called as a witness Dr. Werner Spitz, chief medical examiner of Wayne County, Mich., to rebut prosecution witnesses who have testified that Penn was not the victim of a severe police beating based on his injuries.


Spitz, one of the nation’s leading experts in forensic pathology, said that from observing court photographs he counted six injuries on Penn’s body that were caused by hard swings from police batons.

“Reputable textbooks in forensic pathology show these types of wounds,” Spitz said. “This is a very well-established type of injury because it is not uncommon in child abuse in battered children. We have known this type of injury for many years. This is nothing new.”

Spitz said he did not understand how Dr. Barbara Groves, the San Diego emergency room doctor who treated Penn at Physician’s & Surgeon’s Hospital, could testify that the bruises were not serious enough to indicate that Penn was struck hard with a baton.

“I am not impressed with other testimony, forensically speaking, from people in the emergency room,” Spitz said. “Somebody working in an emergency room in a large city would have by necessity seen these types of injuries.”


Spitz also testified that red marks depicted in photographs around Penn’s eyes were probably caused by hard punches with a fist.

During Spitz’s testimony, Silverman played a TV news videotape of paramedics attempting to revive Riggs. The film clip showed Riggs’ leather belt on the ground with his portable radio attached.

Silverman said the position of the radio contradicted earlier testimony by Pina-Ruiz that Riggs never had a chance to defend himself before he was shot because he was holding a baton in one hand and the police radio in the other.

Spitz said it was unlikely that Riggs would have been able to put the radio in its belt holder after he was shot. The defense maintains that Riggs went for his gun before Penn shot him three times.