Judge Says San Diego Police Lied, Asks Probe
Dist. Atty. Edwin Miller asked the state attorney general’s office Tuesday to investigate claims by a Superior Court judge that San Diego police officers lied on the witness stand and conspired to cover up and conceal evidence in the Sagon Penn police murder trials.
The request came after Judge J. Morgan Lester, who presided over Penn’s second trial, told The Times in an interview that police doctored a photograph submitted as evidence and withheld a transcript of a Police Academy counseling session involving one of the officers in the case. The interview was published Tuesday in the San Diego County edition of The Times.
“In this case, the zeal to get Mr. Penn at all cost caused major problems and they came back and haunted the prosecution and the Police Department repeatedly in the trial,” Lester said during the interview. “It is something absolutely new and was flabbergasting to me. I’ve been in the legal business 21 years, and I have never seen a case where this type of thing was going on.”
Last week, a jury acquitted Penn of the most serious charges in the March 31, 1985, killing of San Diego Police Officer Thomas Riggs and the wounding of Officer Donovan Jacobs and Sarah Pina-Ruiz, a civilian who was riding in Riggs’ police car in a community ride-along program. The defense argued that Penn was the victim of a racist and brutal attack by police and reacted in self-defense. The remaining charges were dismissed on Friday.
On Tuesday, San Diego Police Chief Bill Kolender reacted angrily to Lester’s comments. In a press release, Kolender said, “The arrest of Sagon Penn for the death of Police Agent Tom Riggs . . . has caused much grief within our Police Department and our community for over two years. In our system of justice, the jurors are given the final word. Judge Lester’s comments, whatever motivations may underlie them, are inappropriate, irresponsible and disregard the best interest of the community.”
Later in the day, Kolender sent a message to each of his 1,650 sworn officers calling the judge’s remarks “outrageous and intemperate.”
“However, after conferring with Dist. Atty. Miller, we have asked the attorney general to conduct an independent investigation to finally put to rest these allegations,” the chief said.
Miller called Deputy Atty. Gen. Harley Mayfield in San Diego, who said he passed on the request for an independent investigation to Jerry Clemons, director of the attorney general’s law enforcement division in Sacramento. A spokeswoman said that Clemons will not decide whether to launch an investigation until he receives a written request.
Lester declined to be interviewed on Tuesday, but issued a statement saying he was pleased that Miller and Kolender had asked for the probe. He said he spoke with Kolender by phone Tuesday morning to express his concerns.
“I am further personally convinced that nothing at all would have been done if some of my comments had not been made public,” Lester said in a written statement. “I spoke the truth. I spoke as a concerned citizen.”
In the interview, Lester said that Jacobs and Riggs beat Penn with their night sticks “when nothing is going to happen except caving someone’s head in.”
But the judge was most disturbed by police conduct once the case went to trial.
“Even after the trial, I picked up comments of jurors joking about how totally unbelievable police officers were who testified because their loyalty to each other was greater than that of telling the truth under oath,” Lester said.
After two trials over two years, Lester said, he believes that the vast majority of San Diegans have no real awareness of how much damning evidence against the police was introduced in the case.
“I have run into people who want to make the conclusion that there is a dead officer and someone has to pay,” he said. “They are almost happy to be ignorant of the real details and what was going on.”