Torrance Police Action Called a ‘Perversion’ in Trial on Teen’s Death
A lawyer for a San Pedro father told a Los Angeles Superior Court jury Tuesday that Torrance police committed an “unspeakable perversion” by covering up a colleague’s drunk driving in an accident that killed the man’s teen-age son.
In closing arguments at the end of a six-week civil trial, attorney Browne Greene asked jurors to hold the Torrance Police Department liable for the cover-up to “send a message that nobody in this city, in this state or in this community is above the law.”
Greene represents John Rastello of San Pedro, who sued five years ago alleging that his son, Kelly, was killed in an accident caused by off-duty Torrance Police Sgt. Rollo Green. The lawsuit claims that Green was driving drunk and made an illegal left turn, causing the accident, but that his police “buddies” covered up for him as part of a pattern of concealing police abuses.
Defense lawyers conceded that Green had been drinking, but said he was not drunk. They said Rastello, 19, caused his own death by speeding on his motorcycle and failing to apply both of his brakes. They also argued that an unprecedented review of internal police files proved that Torrance investigates and disciplines its officers properly.
The trial has has been closely watched for the unprecedented review that it has provided of internal affairs files and discipline in the county’s third-largest police department.
On Tuesday, Rastello, his seven surviving children and supporters filled one side of the cramped courtroom. Rastello’s wife, Geraldine, died of cancer last December. Torrance Police Chief Donald Nash, Sgt. Green and seven other officers--all defendants in the case--sat across the aisle.
They heard attorney Greene focus on 14 acts of alleged misconduct for which he said Torrance police received little or no discipline. “What this department did . . . encouraged more violence and more misconduct,” Greene said.
Criminal charges were filed in only one of the cases and in that instance, Greene said, the policeman was permitted to plead guilty to a lesser offense.
“Would that have happened to you or I?” Greene asked. “If you are a police officer in Torrance and you drink and drive, that’s OK. You’re going to get away with it.”
Greene said the permissive attitude began when Chief Nash discontinued his predecessor’s policy of asking the California Highway Patrol to investigate accidents involving Torrance police officers.
Nash’s policy led the department to cover up Sgt. Green’s culpability on the night of the accident, Greene said. To prove that, Greene pointed out: Sgt. Green was not given a blood-alcohol test despite the fact that several witnesses smelled alcohol on his breath; a field supervisor used one of the department’s few untaped phone lines to report in from the scene; Green wasn’t arrested but was driven home by police, and Green did not seek medical care because he knew emergency room personnel would take a blood sample.
Greene asked the jury to award Rastello more than $12 million in damages.
Defense attorneys argued that Torrance police conducted a thorough and impartial investigation on the night of the crash. Casey Yim, the city’s lead attorney, pointed out the department called two supervising sergeants, an accident investigation team and a drunk-driving specialist to investigate the case.
The specialist, Officer Daniel Metzger, used an eye-gaze test to conclude Sgt. Green was not driving under the influence, Yim said.
Police investigating the crash cannot be held liable because the law provides that they are protected from civil claims if they act in good faith, Yim said. He said Rastello failed to prove the officers acted with malice.
Sgt. Green’s lawyer, Will Pirkey, said that only Tony Andrie of San Pedro testified that Green was unsteady on his feet and clearly intoxicated just after the crash.
But Pirkey called Andrie a “phantom witness,” who no one else saw at the scene of the crash, or at the hospital, where Andrie testified that he went to check on the crash victim.
Pirkey said Andrie should not be trusted because he was a high school acquaintance of Kelly Rastello and because he did not come forward until four years after the crash.
As to the allegation that Torrance police routinely conceal misconduct, Yim argued that the Police Department had thoroughly investigated its own officers, creating the mass of files on which the plaintiffs based their case.