Penn’s Arrogance Led to Shootings, D.A. Tells the Jury

Times Staff Writer

It was an “arrogant” Sagon Penn, his “insolence” empowered by his skills in the martial arts, who turned a routine stop by San Diego police into a tragic, deadly confrontation in an Encanto driveway, a prosecutor argued Thursday as Penn’s retrial drew near a close.

Deputy Dist. Atty. Michael Carpenter insisted that Police Agents Thomas Riggs and Donovan Jacobs acted legally and responsibly in attempting to question Penn in the early evening of March 31, 1985.

But Penn--”Mr. Arrogance,” in Carpenter’s phrase, a young man burdened with “an insurmountable attitude problem towards authority”--escalated the incident “into a life or death struggle,” culminating in his intentional killing of Riggs and his attempts to kill Jacobs and civilian ride-along Sarah Pina-Ruiz, the prosecutor said.


Jacobs Berated

Defense attorney Milton J. Silverman had only a few minutes Thursday to begin his closing argument. But as he had throughout the 13-week retrial--and through Penn’s first trial a year ago--he shifted the focus of the proceedings to Jacobs, contending that it was he, not Penn, whose conduct was “aggressive and childish.”

Jacobs, he said, was “like a worm in a tomb--nice and whitewashed and pretty on the outside, and mean and evil and aggressive and hateful and spiteful inside.”

In the course of presenting almost 400 exhibits and calling 100 witnesses to the stand since the trial began in mid-March, both the defense and the prosecution had often strayed into arcane and technical areas of contention.

But in a five-hour monologue Thursday, Carpenter honed in on the fundamental elements of the prosecution case against Penn--a case that has strained relations between the black community and the San Diego Police Department like no other in the city’s history.

Carpenter--borrowing some of the play-acting and theatrics more characteristic of Silverman’s courtroom style--argued that Penn, a karate brown belt, was in full control of the confrontation with Riggs and Jacobs from its inauspicious start to its deadly conclusion.

Incident Recalled

It began, Carpenter recounted, as Jacobs and Riggs, in separate cruisers, patrolled the streets of Encanto looking for a gang member suspected of threatening a neighborhood man with a gun. Driving along Brooklyn Avenue, they saw Penn, who was at the wheel of his pickup truck, taking some friends home after a day at Balboa Park.


Though Jacobs testified in both trials that he stopped the truck after Penn made an illegal U-turn--a contention rejected by every other witness--Carpenter said tapes of police radio traffic made it clear that Jacobs was looking for the suspect in the gun-waving incident.

The “routine stop” escalated into a battle, Carpenter said, when Jacobs walked up to Penn and asked to see his driver’s license. Penn showed him his wallet, but Jacobs insisted that he remove the license--a request, Carpenter noted, that is required by police procedure.

‘Real Simple Thing’

Had Penn answered Jacobs’ questions and assured the officer he was not a gang member, the encounter would have ended there, the prosecutor said. Instead, Penn--taking affront at being stopped--drew Jacobs into a conflict, Carpenter said.

“It would have been a real simple thing, and they would have been on their way,” he said. “But Mr. Penn refused to allow that, by his utter arrogance at being contacted by the police.”

Carpenter, abandoning the methodical style that seemed to limit the impact of his arguments in Penn’s first trial, hammered away at the theme. By focusing on Penn’s responsibility, he provided the jury of eight men and four women with a stark contrast to the defense’s contention that Penn was a disciplined innocent pressed to use deadly force to protect himself from the unjustified, unbridled attack of a hotheaded, racist Jacobs.

Penn, according to Carpenter, was “arrogant, insolent, brazen and immature.” Jacobs, for his part, “made one mistake,” the prosecutor added--”and that was in not recognizing the explosive personality he was dealing with.”


The law, Carpenter said, required that Penn submit to questioning and arrest, if necessary, by Jacobs, even if the thought the arrest was illegal. Society’s rules require that disputes over an officer’s conduct be resolved in court, he said--not on the street.

“We want to avoid losing lives,” Carpenter explained. “We want to avoid shoot-outs. We want to avoid people being killed and injured on street corners because they don’t like to show licenses to police officers.”

But Penn, he argued, was not about to “kowtow” to authority in front of his friends. It was not Penn who felt threatened by the officers, as the defense contends, but Penn--armed with martial arts skills the officers were ill equipped to combat--who threatened Riggs, Jacobs and Pina-Ruiz, Carpenter said.

Threw Up Arms

“If 99 1/2% of the population would have been controlled in this situation by the police officers, who’s creating the problem?” Carpenter asked. “Sagon Penn.”

Drawing on Penn’s own account of the incident--taken from a series of statements to the police that were not admitted as evidence in the first trial--Carpenter recounted how Penn threw up his arms and walked away from Jacobs. When the officer grabbed his arm, Penn spun around and assumed a karate posture, Carpenter said, challenging Jacobs instead of submitting to his questioning.

They tumbled to the ground, Jacobs astride Penn, and Penn used his martial arts skills to fend off the police agent’s baton blows, Carpenter said. When Penn finally seemed to be complying with Jacobs’ order that he turn over on his stomach to be handcuffed, the prosecutor said, he instead grabbed for Jacobs’ gun--an act of trickery, he argued, that demonstrated Penn’s intent to kill.


Rejecting Penn’s claim that the gun fired when Riggs kicked at his arm, Carpenter relied instead on Pina-Ruiz’s testimony to argue that Penn pulled the trigger and shot Jacobs in the neck with his own service revolver.

Next, he said, Penn pumped three bullets into Riggs, and then spun towards Riggs’ patrol car, firing two shots through the window at Pina-Ruiz. Each shot, Carpenter said, landed in the potentially lethal “target areas” Penn’s karate training had taught him to aim for. Each shot, he said, was fired with an intent to kill.

Carpenter argued that Penn’s karate skills--testified to at length by his martial arts instructor, James Wilson--served to strip him of the self-defense argument central to Silverman’s defense case.

Though eyewitnesses testified that the officers brutally beat Penn with their batons before he grabbed Jacobs’ gun, Carpenter said the martial arts testimony proved Penn was unharmed by the baton smacks. If so, he said, Jacobs and Riggs clearly had not used excessive force--the only circumstance under the law, according to Carpenter, which could justify an act of violence against a police officer.

Excessive Force Denied

“How can anybody find they used excessive force if they never had control of him?” Carpenter asked. “The use of this baton on me would be excessive force,” he said, slamming Riggs’ night stick against a metal cabinet. “The use of this baton on Sagon Penn is nowhere near excessive force.”

The standard for self-defense, he added, is that life-threatening action can be taken only if “a reasonable person” would be in fear of his life. Penn, he said, did not act reasonably.


“What would a reasonable person do in those circumstances--turn over, or kill?” Carpenter asked. “A reasonable person--not an arrogant person, an insolent person, an immature person, a brazen person--a reasonable person.”

Penn’s first trial ended last June with the Southeast San Diego man’s acquittal on the most serious charges against him, including murder, but with the jury heavily deadlocked in favor of not-guilty verdicts on the remaining lesser counts on which Penn is being retried.

On Thursday, Carpenter appealed to the jury to seek unanimity this time. He repeatedly asked the jury to see the events from the perspective of Jacobs and Riggs, who he said were responding to a potentially dangerous situation that only grew more frightening as Penn grew more threatening.

“I’m not asking you to return a verdict that backs up the Police Department,” said the intense prosecutor, whose brow was frozen in deep furrows. “I’m not asking you to return a verdict that ‘shows the color’ for the Police Department. What I’m asking you to do from the very beginning is to understand police work.”

But Silverman, whose argument is scheduled to resume this morning, contended that it was Jacobs who did not understand the proper bounds of police work.

Pacing in front of the jury box, he zoomed in on the transcript of a 1978 Police Academy counseling session that surfaced after the jury began deliberations in Penn’s first trial. As he had repeatedly in fighting to use the transcript in court, Silverman argued that the document--in which training officers upbraided Jacobs for an aggressive attitude, biases and a willingness to use profanity in police work--was an ugly prophecy of Jacobs’ conduct on the March evening in Encanto.


Other Cases Recalled

Silverman touched briefly on the testimony--new in the retrial--of three former police officers who attested to Jacobs’ antipathy toward blacks or his aggressive treatment of black suspects. Carpenter’s attempt to paint Jacobs as Penn’s victim--and not vice versa--was “a lie,” Silverman said.

As he had in Penn’s first trial, Silverman recalled the case of Felix Olivier Jr., who was killed by a former San Diego reserve police officer who stole a police car, pinned on a badge, and shot Olivier in a dispute over a woman.

He referred, too, to the case of Craig Peyer, the recently fired California Highway Patrol officer accused of killing college student Cara Knott following a roadside stop.

“I think back on what they must have thought,” Silverman said, linking Penn to Olivier and Knott as an unsuspecting victim of uniformed violence. “I think of the horror of facing that emblem that as children they’d learned to trust, like the garments of the priest or the white coat of the doctor.”

Silverman asked the jury to look into Penn’s heart to see if he meant to harm Jacobs, Riggs or Pina-Ruiz.

“Was there a heart of darkness or was there a heart of life? Was there evil in his heart?” he asked, pointing at Penn, who maintained the stone-faced silence that has carried him through two trials.


Penn faces five felony counts: voluntary manslaughter in the death of Riggs, attempted voluntary manslaughter in the wounding of Jacobs, attempted murder in the wounding of Pina-Ruiz, and assault with a deadly weapon against both Jacobs and Pina-Ruiz.