Penn Story on TV? : Writers in Town to Research Notorious Case; Police Unhappy

Times Staff Writer

A Los Angeles entertainment company with plans of producing “The Sagon Penn Story” miniseries for television sent two writers to San Diego this week to interview Penn and other principals in the controversial case.

Penn, a 25-year-old black man, was acquitted of the murder of one police officer and the attempted murders of another officer--whom he ran over with a patrol car--and a civilian police observer in two highly publicized trials, the second of which ended in July.

Penn, who never testified at his trials and has yet to make a public statement of any kind since his arrest more than two years ago, based his defense on allegations that at least one of the two white officers involved in the March, 1985, incident was racially motivated. When Penn’s truck was stopped by Police Agent Donovan Jacobs for an alleged traffic violation, the incident quickly escalated into a confrontation and the shootings.


Penn’s lawyers claimed that Jacobs, who survived after being shot and run over, used racial slurs and beat Penn because he is black and that Penn--who feared for his life--reacted in self-defense by shooting the officers and the civilian with a gun he took from Jacobs during the struggle in an dusty Encanto neighborhood driveway.

Symbolic Victory

As much as Penn himself was on trial, the prolonged legal proceedings brought into focus long-festering problems between the San Diego Police Department and the city’s black community. Penn’s acquittal, and the subsequent dropping of lesser charges by prosecutors, was viewed as a symbolic victory by black community leaders.

In the aftermath, the Police Department has instituted improved human relations training of its officers and has grudgingly accepted the formation of civilian panel that will check on investigations of police misconduct by the department’s internal affairs unit. Both the police and black leaders have called for a healing of the wounds laid bare by the trials.

Word that Fries Entertainment of Los Angeles and Briggle, Hennessy, Carrothers & Associates, the Los Angeles company that is producing the miniseries for Fries, are interested in making the Sagon Penn story was greeted less than enthusiastically by the Police Department.

“We feel it would be inappropriate and serve to reopen wounds in the community . . . that are healing,” said Lt. Louis J. Scanlon, a police spokesman. “As a department, we feel it’s inappropriate . . . this case was a tragedy for all concerned.”

Scanlon said the department has not issued

any directives prohibiting officers from speaking to the production company or its writers, L. L. Travis Clark and Steve Duncan, who have spent the last week in San Diego talking to and interviewing some of the people involved in the case.


“They are a private company, we can’t control who they interview or talk to,” Scanlon said.

So far, though, neither the writers nor the

entertainment company has contacted the Police Department, he said.

One person they have contacted is Penn, who is still living in San Diego. To what extent he has been interviewed is unclear, but his defense attorney, Milton J. Silverman, said Penn has not signed a contract.

Silverman said he has asked another attorney with expertise in such deals to evaluate the contract. Silverman, though, declined to elaborate on the contents of the contract, which he said he saw for the first time Monday.

“I think Sagon comes to me for guidance and advice,” said Silverman, adding that the writers have yet to contact him for an interview. Silverman said he expects to have the contract analyzed in about a week. He declined to comment about how much Penn stands to gain if the miniseries is eventually televised.

The attorney said that the production company “appears to be committed to this anyway, with or without Penn’s blessing. I just hope they will be fair and accurate to all the people involved and to the citizens of the city.”

Talked to Prosecutor

One person the writers talked to Thursday was Michael Carpenter, the deputy district attorney who prosecuted Penn at both trials. He said the writers contacted him early this week and asked to see him. He checked with Dist. Atty. Edwin Miller.


“He said it was OK,” Carpenter said. “We are going to be as cooperative as we can be.”

Carpenter added jokingly: “I know I can’t act for them . . . I’m not a member of the guild.”

It’s unclear how the proposed miniseries will be greeted in the black community. One black leader, the Rev. George Walker Smith, said: “I have nothing to say. As far as Penn is concerned, it’s history.”

Willie Morrow, a black businessman and publisher of a black community newspaper and owner of a radio station, said it’s too early to make any judgments.

‘Just Another Movie’

“Sometimes movies and TV can be positive as well as negative,” Morrow said. “Sure, we need time to heal but at the same time we have to make sure this doesn’t happen again. Maybe by focusing on it we can show we need to improve our relations.

“It’ll be awhile before something like this makes it on television and by then the wounds will be healed and maybe it would be just another movie.”

Gary Kessler, vice president of television movies for Fries, was unavailable for interviews, as were the two writers, who write screenplays for the current television series “Tour of Duty,” a drama about the Vietnam War.


However, Jack Allen, director of development for Briggle, Hennessy, Carrothers & Associates, said that attention being placed on the writers has become a distraction.

“It’s really hard for them to gather information under these circumstances,” said Allen. “As you know, it’s a very touchy situation in San Diego.

“Right now they have a job to do, that’s why no one is interested in saying too much at the moment.”

The executive producer in charge of the Penn project is Stockton Briggle, Allen said. Briggle was in New York and unavailable for comment.

Briggle, Hennessy, Carrothers & Associates produced the recent television movie “The Alamo: 13 Days to Glory,” and is in the midst of doing a television movie called “Bridge to Silence,” a story of a deaf person starring Academy Award winner Marlee Matlin.

The only other recent attempt at producing a story based on a highly publicized event in San Diego dealt with a proposed television movie about the McDonald’s restaurant massacre in San Ysidro in 1984, which left 21 people dead and 19 wounded at the hands of gunman James Huberty.


The NBC television network, however, dropped the production when local residents--led by San Ysidro citizens--protested the plans for the movie.