A federal judge ruled Thursday that the entire Christopher Commission report can be presented to jurors as evidence in a civil rights lawsuit accusing Los Angeles police of operating a "death squad" that unjustifiably killed three robbers in Sunland.
The decision by U.S. District Court Judge J. Spencer Letts marked the first time that the highly critical study of the Police Department has been allowed as evidence in a case against the city that commissioned it.
Letts ruled that the 228-page report prepared last year after the police beating of Rodney G. King was relevant evidence that could be considered by jurors in the case involving the shooting of four men after a holdup of a McDonald's restaurant.
Three of the robbers were killed in the Feb. 12, 1990, incident; the fourth was shot but survived. The survivor and the families of the dead men filed suit against the officers--all members of the Special Investigations Section--and numerous administrators, past and present, alleging that the officers violated their civil rights by firing without warning or provocation.
The suit also alleges that the department has a "practice and custom" of using excessive force. The plaintiffs' attorney, Stephen Yagman, used the Christopher report at length to question witnesses while presenting his case and asked Thursday that it be included as evidence because the commission's findings closely mirror the allegations of the lawsuit.
In agreeing to the request, Letts overruled objections by Deputy City Atty. Don Vincent, who said the report was not an objective look at the department and not relevant to the case because it did not focus on the SIS, any of its officers or the shooting.
"We object to every line," Vincent said. "These conclusions were drawn by people not qualified to draw those conclusions. This unit was not addressed. These men were not addressed."
Letts made his ruling as Yagman rested the plaintiffs' case. Vincent is scheduled to begin his defense of the suit today.
In another ruling Thursday, Letts granted Vincent's request that 13 former police commissioners and three former police chiefs be dismissed as defendants in the case. Vincent had argued that there was no evidence that they were responsible for the SIS' action in the shooting. Letts also dismissed 10 SIS officers who were on the scene of the shooting but did not fire weapons.
But Letts refused to dismiss as defendants Chief Daryl F. Gates, Mayor Tom Bradley, the nine officers who fired on the robbers or their immediate supervisor. The judge said the jury would have to decide if the officers violated the robbers' rights and whether Gates and Bradley were responsible as the top managers of the department.
Outside the court, Vincent said it was unclear what effect the ruling on the Christopher report will have on the case.
"It has the potential of being a very big problem," said Vincent, who heads the unit that defends the city against police-related lawsuits.
However, Vincent said the effect of the ruling on other civil rights claims against the city is not clear because his office has already succeeded in stopping its inclusion as evidence in other cases.
Therefore, Vincent said, acceptance of the report as evidence may vary from case to case and even from judge to judge. Until a lower court ruling is appealed, a precedent will not be set, he said.
Yagman agreed, noting that another federal judge, ruling earlier this week, refused to allow the report as evidence in a suit against the police.
"There has already been two different rulings in a week," Yagman said. "It is going to depend upon who the judge is in each case."