Faulty Ballistics in Deputy’s Arrest : Eagerness to ‘Make’ Gun Cited in LAPD Lab Error
Little more than 12 hours after Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Deputy Rickey Ross was picked up by Los Angeles police in the company of a prostitute on Feb. 23, Detective Jimmy Trahin, an examiner in the Police Department’s firearms laboratory, wrote a half-page report concluding that Ross’ revolver had fired the bullets that killed three prostitutes last year.
Trahin, an LAPD veteran of 19 years who has trained numerous police officers in the tedious specialty of weapons and ammunition analysis, left no room for doubt.
When he wrote that test bullets fired from Ross’ gun were “positive” matches to the bullets that killed the prostitutes, he underlined positive. The fatal shots, he added, could have been fired only by Ross’ 9-millimeter Smith & Wesson “and no other weapon.”
Eleven weeks later, in the same lab building, Trahin sat silently as prosecutors and defense lawyers listened to two of the nation’s most respected firearms inspectors explain why he had been wrong, why there were obvious differences between the tiny scratches and chips found on ammunition fragments he had matched.
Three days after that--last Monday--Rickey Ross was out of jail. By Friday the Los Angeles County district attorney’s office had announced that it would begin using private firearms examiners to double-check results of the LAPD lab and in some cases bypass the lab entirely.
A reconstruction of the investigation offers two key lessons.
One, according to Deputy Dist. Atty. William Hodgman, who remains philosophical in the wake of defeat, is that firearms examination is at times more art than science.
The other lesson, according to some critics, is that the cockiness of some examiners in the LAPD firearms investigation unit periodically leads to gross mistakes.
Department spokesmen and Trahin have declined to comment, citing the department’s review of firearms lab practices.
The Ross case was the third high-profile murder case since 1984 in which LAPD firearms experts were forced to admit that they had made an incorrect analysis.
“The reputation of the LAPD lab has always suffered” because of such incidents, said Robert Joling, a Wisconsin lawyer and past president of the American Academy of Forensic Sciences.
Not Asking Right Question
Even before the Ross affair, LAPD was in the process of trying to replace sworn officers with civilians in its firearms lab, officials said. Charles Morton, an outside forensics expert who conducted the tests that would begin unraveling the Ross case, said the distinction is important because different qualities are required of scientists than of police officers, who are trained to make extremely quick decisions.
“Too often they get caught up in doing the work of the prosecution,” Morton said of the police experts. “They don’t ask, ‘Is there anything that excludes this guy?’ ”
Police were under intense public scrutiny when they arrested Ross. They had investigated the killings of 69 prostitutes and the “street murders” of 30 other women in the previous four years with only one conviction. At a Police Commission meeting the night before Ross’ arrest, members of the Black Coalition Fighting Back Serial Murders protested what they claimed was a lack of police concern.
In South-Central Los Angeles at 1:30 a.m. on Feb. 23, two officers stopped a car that was moving erratically. Inside they found Ross, who they thought was drunk, and a prostitute. A Pepsi can that had been used as a “crack” cocaine pipe was tossed out of one of the car’s windows, police said.
The confluence of facts was intriguing: Ross was in the area where the killings had occurred. Officers were on the alert for a 9-millimeter pistol because previous tests on the bullets that killed three of the prostitutes--Judith Simpson, Cynthia Walker and Latanya Johnson--determined that the same kind of weapon had been used in each case. When they searched Ross’ trunk, police found that type of gun.
Within a few hours--as little as 90 minutes according to one account--Trahin concluded that Ross’ handgun had fired the three shots that killed the prostitutes. That was the clincher.
In bringing the circumstantial murder case against the 40-year-old sheriff’s narcotics investigator, prosecutors, as they often do, put their faith in police expertise. In this case, they were trusting tests conducted under pressure.
Fast Work Demanded
One senior police officer said homicide investigators were telling the firearms experts, ‘ “Get in there and do a comparison. . . . We need it now, we need it now.’ ”
Hours later Ross was booked as a murder suspect.
As they prepared for his arraignment, Ross’ court-appointed attorneys seemed ready to accept Trahin’s findings. Even if the murder weapon was in their client’s car, they noted in what appeared to be a rather desperate posture, prosecutors would still have to prove he pulled the trigger.
“I suppose I was like the average citizen,” said co-counsel Guy O’Brien. “They said it was a match, I thought it was like a fingerprint.”
At the hearing where the defense sought an arraignment delay, a deputy district attorney named Harvey Giss appeared as a fill-in representative of the prosecution. Three years ago Giss had been burned by a faulty LAPD gun match at the trial of James Hawkins Jr., accused of killing two alleged drug dealers. Hawkins had been convicted despite the mistake, but the uproar caused the LAPD to add a backup inspector to each case.
Giss assumed it couldn’t happen again. He stressed to reporters how certain police were of their evidence.
Meanwhile, prosecutor Hodgman and LAPD homicide investigators were trying to find witnesses to finger Ross and back up their firearms evidence. But the best they could find was a man who thought he had seen a car and heard a man’s voice at the scene of one of the prostitute killings.
Gun Was the Key
The gun evidence clearly was the linchpin of the case. One day, Hodgman drove over to the LAPD firearms investigation unit in northeast Los Angeles to check it out. Looking through a special two-sample microscope that puts murder bullets and test bullets next to each other was a journey into foreign territory. He saw gross similarities, but the subtleties that supposedly “made” Ross’ gun had to be pointed out to him.
Although the written report reflected absolute certainty, Hodgman said, Trahin told him early on that there were some analytical gray areas. Nevertheless, “there was a sense of confidence that the LAPD firearm investigation unit had,” the prosecutor said.
Besides, Trahin was a pro. “Within that unit, he is the lead man, he’s been an instructor throughout the nation,” said Capt. Joe De Ladurantey, commander of the Harbor Division, who until two months ago was in charge of the department’s Scientific Investigations Division, which oversees the nine-member firearms unit.
But one veteran private firearms investigator who once worked for a Los Angeles County law enforcement agency said he was sometimes put off by Trahin’s flippancy, a quality that other private investigators--who spoke only on the condition of anonymity because they still do consulting work for LAPD--said is too common in the unit.
“There is a nickname in our profession,” one specialist said, for mistakes in which an investigator is too quick to “make” a gun. It is “Wolferism,” a reference to DeWayne Wolfer, a one-time LAPD criminalist who misread evidence in the assassination of Sen. Robert F. Kennedy in Los Angeles in 1968, even though the guilt of Sirhan Sirhan was never in doubt.
When Ross’ defense went searching for a firearms expert, they settled on one of seven specialists who were asked years later to reevaluate Wolfer’s findings. He was Charles Morton, a private criminalist from Oakland who had subsequently worked on some of the country’s most prominent murder trials, including those of Ted Bundy, Dr. Jeffrey McDonald and Atlanta’s convicted child killer, Wayne Williams.
Hodgman wasn’t worried. Usually you never saw these defense examiners in court because they merely confirmed, to their clients’ dismay, the police expert’s “make.”
After 26 years as an expert in the laboratory testing of bullets, blood and other crime-scene remnants, Charles Morton had a healthy respect for the power--and pitfalls--of physical evidence.
An old Orange County case frequently reminded him of what was at stake.
A catering truck driver named William DePalma had been convicted of holding up a Buena Park savings and loan in 1968, even though the defense produced a dozen witnesses who swore that at the time of the robbery he was serving them lunch 15 miles away.
One small piece of evidence--a fingerprint--outweighed all the alibi testimony and sent DePalma to prison. A Buena Park police sergeant testified that he lifted the print, which clearly matched DePalma’s, from the counter of the savings and loan.
“This type of evidence has so much weight,” said Morton, who runs his own crime lab. “And in most cases it should be that persuasive.”
But there was one problem, which was discovered by a forensics student only after DePalma had spent 2 1/2 years behind bars. The Buena Park sergeant had fabricated the fingerprint, using a photocopy of a real print taken off the defendant.
DePalma’s conviction was overturned and the sergeant wound up in jail for preparing false fingerprint displays in yet another case.
Fifteen years later, while Morton was analyzing the twisted and mushroomed bullet fragments that prompted authorities to charge Rickey Ross with murder, he thought again of the Buena Park scandal. There was no suggestion of fraud this time, but one factor seemed similar.
“It’s rare that a case is so dependent on one bit of evidence,” Morton said.
But when Morton walked into LAPD’s firearms lab on April 17, he had no reason to suspect that the Ross evidence might be discredited. Although he sometimes found himself challenging police experts in court, “I have had a lot more cases where I agreed with them,” he noted.
Trahin’s report documented two types of evidence, the three bullets found in the prostitutes and a single shell casing, found near Cynthia Walker’s body and presumed to come from the murder weapon.
Trahin and his co-examiner, Officer Jim Fountain, had begun by firing nine test bullets from Ross’ guns into a water tank.
Morton, a 52-year-old professorial-looking man with a neat graying beard, came prepared to look at the evidence for himself. He greeted Trahin, who had been one of his students in the Department of Criminal Justice at Cal State Los Angeles. Trahin handed him packets of bullet fragments and stacks of photographs showing greatly magnified details.
The first thing Morton examined was LAPD’s analysis of the single shell casing.
One of the clearest marks made on a shell casing is from the gun’s “ejector,” a tiny piece of metal that spits the spent shell out of the firing chamber. In all of the test firings of Ross’ gun, Morton found, the ejector left an oval-shaped mark near the outside of the shell.
On the cartridge recovered near Walker, however, the mark was narrower and near the inside of the shell.
“There’s something wrong,” Morton said to himself. “The ejector mark is clearly different.”
Then he looked at the tiny impression left by the firing pin as it strikes the back of the shell, setting off the explosion that sends the bullet speeding down the barrel of the gun.
The nine test shots police had fired from Ross’ Smith & Wesson left a telltale squiggle, made by a minute defect on the tip of the gun’s firing pin. On the Walker shell, however, there was no such mark.
Morton’s suspicion was hardening into a conclusion.
The LAPD report did not mention either of the discrepancies that Morton had noticed. Instead it linked the Smith & Wesson to the Walker shell by matching “breechface stria,” a jumble of dozens of microscopic scratches left on the shell.
Morton compared the crime-scene and test shells under the microscope and confirmed that a few of the scratches seemed to go in the same direction. But many others were going in different directions, he said.
Couldn’t Be the Gun
Morton’s dispute with LAPD was more than the typical experts’ quarrel over the degree of certainty--over how well police had proven their case.
As he saw it, “we were looking at an exclusion .” In other words, Ross’ gun couldn’t have produced the Walker cartridge.
The analysis of the murder-scene bullets was not so clear. By broad “class characteristics,” Ross’ gun could have been the murder weapon. The number and slant of the grooves inside of the gun’s barrel, which cause a bullet to spiral toward its target, were the same as those found on the slugs taken from the prostitutes--"six right,” in the experts’ parlance.
“But there is nothing unique about these dimensions,” Morton said. “There are tens of thousands of these weapons made with the same characteristic.”
Beyond that, LAPD examiners apparently thought they had a distinct detail to prove the match. It was a defect line that appeared to be similar in both sets of bullets.
Morton concluded that this was an illusion.
When Trahin examined the bullets, he aligned them incorrectly under a poorly focused microscope, Morton said. There was not enough evidence to make a “100% exclusion,” he said, but clearly you could not make a positive match between bullets and gun.
On his second day in the LAPD lab, after confirming his findings by firing and examining five more test shots, Morton told the defense team that LAPD had blown the case.
Eager to obtain Ross’ release from jail, the lawyers asked Hodgman to come to the lab on April 24 and meet with Morton.
“They didn’t seem really worried,” Morton said. “They took the position that there was room for differences of opinion. But I said, ‘I don’t think this is merely a matter of differences of opinion.’ ”
Hodgman told the defense he could not respond to Morton’s results without talking to Trahin, and Trahin was in Virginia at a convention of the Assn. of Firearms and Toolmark Examiners, delivering a paper on the conversion of semi-automatic weapons into automatic ones.
Before Trahin returned, the defense and the prosecution agreed to what was in effect a tie-breaker. Al Biasotti of the state Department of Justice and John Murdock of the Contra Costa County Sheriff’s Department would come to the LAPD lab for several days.
On the third day of their testing, Murdock and Biasotti told both sides they should meet. On May 12, the prosecution, defense and LAPD representatives gathered in a conference room. Before they sat down, Biasotti, carrying photographs and 18 pages of notes, sought out Trahin to let him know they would disagree with his findings.
Could Have Been Chance
Murdock, according to one person in attendance, “made a statement in which he said the main reason he wanted to call the meeting was to make sure this didn’t happen again.”
For more than a half-hour Murdock and Biasotti explained why, in the words of another person in attendance, “the points of identity (between the murder bullets and the test bullets) that were noted by the LAPD were attributable to chance or random correspondence.”
The quality of equipment at LAPD also came in for criticism. Biasotti suggested that the evidence be re-tested at the state Department of Justice’s lab in Sacramento.
The meeting broke up. Several people “ran for the phone,” said one observer.
Ross’ attorneys asked Hodgman and Sterling E. Norris, the head of the district attorney’s special trials section, to drop charges immediately. The prosecutors said they couldn’t make that decision without conferring with superiors. This was too hot a case. One police agency had put another’s officer in jail. He’d sat there nearly three months.
It was a Friday. A decision would have to wait until Monday.
Meanwhile, the prosecutors suggested to the police that they might want to look at the evidence again in light of Murdock’s and Biasotti’s criticisms.
The Police Department did. The next day it ran more tests on Ross’ gun. This time, said Hodgman, the relationship between the test bullets and the murder bullets was found to be “inconclusive.”
Still a Suspect
The charges would have to be dropped, even though authorities said that Ross--dismissed for his conduct on the night of his arrest and for allegedly tampering with drug evidence--remains a murder suspect. Ross has declined to be interviewed by The Times since his release.
A couple of days later, prosecutor Harvey Giss wondered once again how to regard police experts. What was he supposed to do, he asked, begin hiring outside examiners himself?
“The thing that upsets me and everybody else so much is that by and large LAPD is a first-rate organization in our minds. But a problem like this makes everybody sick because it tarnishes the image of the people who ID blood, hair, semen, saliva, fabric. They’re all stigmatized.”
On Friday representatives from LAPD and the district attorney’s office agreed on a formal request from prosecutors that they be able to selectively employ outside firearms examiners.
Times staff writers Ronald L. Soble, Hector Tobar and Tracy Wood contributed to this story.
EVIDENCE THAT MISFIRED
Microscopic details in a shell casing and bullet fragments led independent firearms experts to conclude that Los
Angeles police had incorrectly linked a gun found in Rickey Ross’ car to the slaying of three prostitutes.