THE SIMPSON VERDICTS : LAPD Was on Trial, Say Angry Officers : Police: The mood is grim at station houses. Many say jury disregarded strong evidence.

TIMES STAFF WRITERS

You could have heard a needle fall on the hard, bare tile floor of the Los Angeles Police Department's Robbery-Homicide Division when the word came, if it weren't for the gasps of disbelief and dispiritedness.

Inside the once-hallowed hallways of Parker Center's third floor where the storied Robbery-Homicide unit resides, the meaning of Tuesday's decision seemed almost too much to contemplate: The jury's acquittal of O.J. Simpson seemed to represent a guilty verdict for the LAPD on issues of purity and prowess, both of which were repeatedly called into question by Simpson's defense team. The work of two of their best, most experienced detectives--Philip L. Vannatter and Tom Lange--proved insufficient to withstand one of the world's most expensive defense teams and the shocking revelations about one of their own, former Detective Mark Fuhrman.

At that, they could only shake their heads and mutter.

"Unbelievable."

"Damn."

There was anger. Detectives--plainclothes and those in uniform--massed in small groups along the division's stark white walls that seemed starker than usual Tuesday. "That's Los Angeles--we condone murder," said one officer.

There was resignation: "S--- happens."

And cop-like cynicism: "See, I told you there was a Santa Claus."

And a profound frustration. "What's the point?" as one officer put it. "Let's fold up the tent."

On the sixth floor of Parker Center, a noticeably upset Police Chief Willie L. Williams watched the verdict announcement with members of the media and quickly ushered them out, saying he didn't want himself or his officers saying something that could harm the case in the event of future legal action.

Despite a departmentwide gag order, many detectives and rank-and-file officers could not corral their contempt--or their disappointment.

"I honestly believe if they had caught O.J. on film committing the murders they would have found him not guilty," said Detective Mark Aragon, a homicide investigator in the North Hollywood Division who has worked for seven years solving murder cases. "They would have said it was Fuhrman in an O.J. mask. This had nothing to do with two people being murdered. It had to do with the Police Department on trial. . . . It just really gets under your skin."

Officer Clark Baker, currently on stress leave from the Valley Traffic Division, said he believed the racial makeup of the jury--nine blacks, a Latino and two whites--had a significant effect on the outcome of the trial.

He speculated that the verdict may prod the LAPD to develop new methods for collecting evidence. On the other hand, he said, "morale has hit rock bottom."

As an example of the beating the LAPD and its Robbery-Homicide unit absorbed during the trial, one of the defense exhibits during closing arguments labeled the LAPD as the "black hole" where evidence went and vanished by design or was compromised by incompetence. Also during closing arguments, lead defense attorney Johnnie L. Cochran Jr. lumped together Detective Vannatter and disgraced ex-Detective Fuhrman, calling them the "twin devils of deception." Cochran claimed that Vannatter lied to secure a search warrant of Simpson's home, while Fuhrman was accused by the defense team of lying on the stand.

Almost every high-profile case--the Robert Kennedy assassination, the Hillside Strangler case, the Night Stalker killings, among them--lands in the specialized Robbery-Homicide unit. Between them, Vannatter and Lange, the Simpson lead investigators, have 52 years of experience and have investigated 500 homicides.

Chief Williams scoffed at those who interpreted Tuesday's verdict as an indictment of the department and its most storied squad, made legendary by the fictitious Sgt. Joe Friday in the television show "Dragnet." But many disagreed, including some of his underlings.

"None of my people believe that" it isn't an indictment, one sergeant said. At the same time, said the sergeant, who asked to not be identified, his detectives believe it is an "unfair indictment."

Throughout the LAPD, veteran investigators said even before the verdict that they believed the Simpson case had diminished the public's respect for their work, and heightened expectations among jurors in other cases for levels of proof that may be unattainable.

Less than two hours after the Simpson verdict, Detective Carolyn Flamenco of the LAPD's South Bureau homicide unit watched a jury acquit a defendant of murder in a case she investigated.

"I took a deep breath and I had to walk out the door of the court, because the tears started coming," Flamenco said of the little-known case in the Compton courthouse. "I couldn't even poll the jury, I was so upset, on top of the O.J. verdict. I was hyperventilating. I thought: 'What are we coming to?' "

In Flamenco's eyes, the two acquittals were not totally coincidental. She had never lost a murder case until the advent of the O.J. Simpson prosecution. Since then, she has lost two cases and seen the skepticism of jurors grow.

"I have absolutely no faith or confidence in our jury system anymore," said Flamenco, sighing deeply. "When I poll these jurors, they don't see the evidence or they don't evaluate it. They get caught up in the emotion of the case.

"I feel like this department has taken such a beating," Flamenco said. "I don't know what I can do to make it different. I don't know what any of us can do to make it different."

While, collectively, they had hundreds of cases to work, many of the city's detectives had a difficult time focusing as the weight of the day's events settled on their overburdened shoulders.

Although many investigators and officers said they understood some of the public's distrust, they also believed the Simpson evidence in the case was rock solid, as good as it gets. And they completely dismissed the defense theory of a police conspiracy. "The people I work with wouldn't do that," said one detective.

"There are people doing life without parole who have been convicted with one-tenth of the evidence that they had in the Simpson case," said another veteran homicide investigator.

For some detectives and officers, the jury's vote of no confidence proved too much to take.

Detective Andy Monsue, who investigates major assault crimes at the Foothill Division, said he has decided to leave the department and Los Angeles.

"This is the straw that broke the camel's back," Monsue said. "A lot of us are going to leave the department, me for one.

"I've been with this department for 22 years and to put it bluntly the amount of evidence in this case is a detective's wet dream," said Monsue, who has spent 17 of his years as a detective.

Monsue, like many of his colleagues, offered no apologies for Fuhrman. He blamed city officials for not getting rid of him when they had the chance.

A shaken Lt. Ray Lombardo at the West Valley LAPD station said: "What is a homicide investigator going to have to do? Are we going to have to have an eyewitness every time there's a murder? Absent an eyewitness, is someone going to walk?"

He predicted officers "who were at retirement age--if they were thinking of sticking around . . . probably won't now."

Urging officers not to interpret the verdict as criticism of their life's work, Deirdre Hill, president of the Los Angeles Police Commission, echoed Chief Williams' view that the trial's outcome was not a repudiation of the LAPD.

"I trust the jury simply felt the case was not proven beyond a reasonable doubt," she said. "I would not take it as a wholesale indictment of the Police Department . . . and I hope the officers don't either," Hill said.

"I understand a number of officers are disappointed," said Hill, "but I think the majority understand that the wheels of justice move the way they move, and the officers will continue to do their jobs."

Cliff Ruff, president of the Police Protective League, which represents detectives and other rank-and-file officers, also predicted that offices would carry on, despite this "blow."

While not acknowledging errors, the union president said the case should be reviewed to ferret out weaknesses for future prosecutions, particularly concerning the crime lab, whose work also came under fire from the defense.

"Let's bring in an outside group and let's find out what there was in the prosecution's case that made the evidence not strong enough," Ruff said.

At the Van Nuys Division, Sgt. Al Dravidzius expressed optimism that his colleagues would endure. "We got bruised more than anyone else other than Ron and Nicole," he said.

Still, when all was said, Tuesday's message seemed painfully clear to many officers: Given a choice between lifting the dark cloud hovering over Simpson or the one hanging over the LAPD, the 12 jurors chose the former.

Copyright © 2019, Los Angeles Times
EDITION: California | U.S. & World
63°