Not All L.A. Murder Cases Are Equal

TIMES STAFF WRITERS

In Los Angeles County, certain murders are more likely to be solved and successfully prosecuted than others.

Killers of whites are more likely to be punished than killers of blacks or Latinos.

Slayings that get publicity are more likely to end in convictions.

And outcomes vary significantly from police agency to police agency and from courthouse to courthouse.

Those findings emerged from a 20-month study of all 9,442 willful homicides reported by public agencies in Los Angeles County from 1990 through 1994. The study tracked those cases through the justice system until mid-1996.

It examined the impact on these cases of race, class and media attention--all elements in the O.J. Simpson murder case. In short, the study sought to determine how the system works for people not named O.J. Simpson.

The method of analysis stops short of establishing cause-and-effect relationships. It does not prove, for example, that a victim's race is what causes his or her murder to go unpunished. But it does show that the likelihood of punishment varies according to the victim's race.

"The system does a lot of things well, but some things quite poorly," said Richard A. Berk, the UCLA sociology and statistics professor who did the statistical analysis for The Times. "The data suggest that the system treats some victims' lives as more important than others. In particular, it appears to devalue the lives of low-income people and minorities.

"It also may be affected by legally irrelevant factors such as media attention," Berk said. Decisions by prosecutors to file capital charges and enter into plea bargains, he said, "appear to be influenced by the scope and content of newspaper coverage."

The study found that several factors that had nothing to do with the severity of the crime were significant indicators of how cases turned out:

* Victim's race. Cases involving white victims were more likely to be solved by police. And suspects, once caught, were more likely to be charged with crimes carrying a potential death penalty.

Conversely, the slayings of blacks and Latinos were less likely to be solved, and prosecutors were less likely to charge the suspects with capital crimes.

* Social class. The killings of people who lacked high school degrees were less likely to end in murder convictions than killings of people who completed high school or college.

* Publicity. Alleged killers who received newspaper coverage were more likely to be treated severely by prosecutors. And killings of white victims were more likely to receive newspaper coverage.

* Police agency. The Los Angeles Police Department, by far the county's biggest, was more likely to make arrests that led to charges than the Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department. But LAPD cases fell apart in court more often.

* Courthouse. Cases filed in the downtown courthouse, where four out of 10 murder cases are processed, were more likely to end in dismissal--and less likely to end in a murder conviction--than cases in suburban courthouses.

In raw numbers, charges were filed about 10% more often when whites were the victims than when blacks or Latinos were. When the statistical analysis took into account information about the victims and the circumstances of the crimes--such as hard-to-solve killings of strangers or easier-to-solve domestic killings--the odds that killings of whites would be solved were 1.4 times greater than the odds that killings of blacks and Latinos would be solved.

The study looked for factors that might explain different outcomes of cases. For example, the study examined similarities and differences in cases where charges were filed. It then determined the degree to which race or class or other key factors were linked to the filing of charges.

Law enforcement officials say they try to be evenhanded in their approach to homicides, but acknowledge that as a practical matter, not every case gets the same attention. Nonetheless, they say, race is not a factor in how hard they try to solve and prosecute cases.

"We don't say, 'Hey, it's a white person, so we're gonna work harder on this,' " said LAPD Deputy Chief John D. White.

Capt. Don Mauro, head of the Sheriff's Department homicide bureau, said of race: "I don't see where . . . that shows up anywhere in the effort" deputies make.

Dist. Atty. Gil Garcetti and his top aides declined to be interviewed for this series unless they could conduct their own study based on The Times data.

But a Garcetti spokeswoman said in a letter: "Race plays no part in our decision-making process. In fact, we attempt to be colorblind when we file cases and make . . . decisions" in potential death penalty cases.

Law enforcement officials suggest that factors other than race account for the higher proportion of murders of blacks and Latinos going unsolved.

They argue that blacks and Latinos often are killed in neighborhoods plagued by gangs, while whites tend to be killed in middle- and higher-income neighborhoods where witnesses are more inclined to cooperate with police.

The study took into account gang killings and differences in neighborhood incomes and found no impact on the race finding. But it could not measure the willingness of witnesses to come forward.

How the System Works, and Doesn't

On some levels, the justice system works rationally and predictably, the study found.

People who killed strangers were more likely to get tough treatment than those who killed lovers, relatives or other people they knew. That, experts say, is probably because society finds stranger killings more frightening than domestic violence.

People who committed the most heinous killings were more likely, when caught, to be charged and punished severely. Double murderers were more likely to get the toughest sentences. So, too, were people who killed while committing robberies and other felonies, and people who had the worst criminal records.

But even taking such factors into account, the study found that the outcomes of cases varied according to the victim's race, location and media attention.

The criminal justice system's handling of homicides is a particularly sensitive issue in communities of minorities and the poor, where there is widespread suspicion that authorities place less value on their lives.

That suspicion was voiced by the mother of a black teenage victim who thought that her son's case got short shrift when the killer was given a plea bargain. She asked if the case was "overlooked because of the many cases that our society has, and [because] the poor persons' [cases] have no investigation."

Whom you kill matters more than who you are, the study suggested.

It found little statistical evidence that minority defendants are treated differently than white defendants.

But a higher proportion of those prosecuted for killing white victims end up guilty of a murder charge. And cases are dismissed more often when victims are black or Latino. The study could not measure statistical differences for killings of Asians because there were relatively few.

"The overwhelming fact that determines the likely outcome is the background of the victim," agreed Deputy Public Defender Bruce Schweiger. "If they are white, or if they are black but not from the projects, that will make a difference."

The study's findings are consistent with more limited legal and academic studies elsewhere, which concluded that the court system treats killings of minority victims less severely than killings of whites.

Such studies have been criticized for failing to consider all potentially relevant factors that could explain away the racial findings.

The newspaper's study examined every step of the criminal justice process--from investigations through prosecutions--using available data about race, education and neighborhood for all victims and defendants.

The review also considered the criminal records of defendants, whether a case received media attention, and descriptions of each crime. The review could not, however, measure the strength of the evidence and the skill levels of detectives and prosecutors in individual cases, nor the racial composition of juries.

The Role of Publicity

To assess the impact of the media, the study examined Times coverage over the five-year period.

It found that cases were more likely to receive tougher treatment in the court system if there was coverage.

Cases the newspaper wrote about were less likely to be plea bargained, and more likely to involve charges of special circumstances--making defendants eligible for the death penalty. Those special circumstance allegations also were more likely to be found true.

Past studies have suggested that prosecutors, wanting to appear tough on crime, are less likely to negotiate plea bargains when the media is paying attention.

Officials said that media coverage does not drive their decisions.

A spokeswoman for the district attorney's office said in a letter that decisions to seek capital charges "are based on valid, legal reasons due to the circumstances of the homicide and the evidence," not on media attention.

Similarly, Lt. John Dunkin, LAPD's South Bureau homicide commander and a former LAPD press spokesman, said the media focus on some of the same cases that police and prosecutors do--those that arouse community outrage and involve innocent victims.

Police say the media interest in such cases is incidental to them, except insofar as it prompts more people to call with clues.

"I'm not going to insult your intelligence" by contending that all murder cases get equal police resources, Dunkin said in an interview.

He cited a particularly intense recent effort to solve the killing of Viola McClain, an 82-year-old Watts woman shot on the front porch of her house.

When "innocent victims, God-fearing people, end up murdered," said Dunkin, the other cases "will take a back seat."

Dunkin said he is not making a value judgment that one life is worth more than another. He said the killing of an innocent such as McClain causes neighborhood terror, and therefore must be resolved and resolved quickly.

In contrast, he said of the community reaction to a hypothetical gang crime: "When 'Snoopy' kills 'Chilly Willie,' nobody cares."

The Times wrote stories about 15% of the county's homicides, involving 1,440 victims. Most of the articles were about black and Latino victims. However, the newspaper was twice as likely to write about the relatively few white and Asian victims.

The newspaper was less likely to write about gang killings, which tended to involve Latino and black victims. It was more likely to write about robbery slayings and domestic slayings--crimes where the victims tended to be white.

Times Editor Shelby Coffey III said: "A number of factors are considered when deeming a murder story newsworthy. Each victim could be a lengthy, separate story. But, given the volume of murders in Los Angeles County, then a number of other important issues would go uncovered.

"We choose, not on the basis of race," Coffey said, "but on the news elements involved that illuminate key issues and capture public interest. We reevaluate this process on an ongoing basis, and will use this study to continue that evaluation."

The study also included an examination of coverage by eight other local newspapers in a two-month period bracketing the slayings of Nicole Brown Simpson and Ronald Lyle Goldman in June 1994. The smaller newspapers also were more likely to write about the killings of whites. The study could not measure the effect of broadcast news.

Some detectives and prosecutors say they feel pressure from their supervisors when the media are interested in a case.

A homicide investigator said he was told to put his unsolved cases on the back burner for months so he could handle the Westside slaying of a socially prominent San Fernando Valley man that had attracted media attention.

A senior deputy district attorney said he wasted months redoing a fruitless investigation just because a reporter had asked higher-ranking prosecutors about it.

Some judges want to be put on notice when the media are around. As a result, court dockets sometimes say "Press case."

"For the good of your client, you do not want the press involved in your case," said Charles Gessler, who recently retired as the supervising public defender in charge of death penalty cases.

The Police Agencies

Around the county, the study found, there were striking disparities in the percentage of police investigations that resulted in prosecutors filing charges against murder suspects and convictions.

Torrance police had the best overall prosecution record, with 52% of their slayings resulting in homicide convictions of adults.

But in nearby Inglewood, the police had the worst record in the county. Only 11% of their cases ended with adults being convicted of homicide.

The head of Inglewood's homicide bureau pointed out that the department has a high proportion of hard-to-solve cases. And, said Capt. John Frazier, prosecutors are too selective about filing the city's cases. "In some cases, you absolutely can't figure out why you wouldn't at least try," he said.

Inglewood police had more than their share of problems, even a criminalist on the lam.

Clifford Skeete took off in 1990, when a sheriff's forensic expert concluded that he had manufactured evidence against a suspect by superimposing a fingerprint onto the murder weapon. Discovered before trial, the fingerprint was not used in court. But officials were left to reexamine all other cases handled by Skeete. There is a warrant for his arrest.

The two largest agencies in the county have dramatically different records, according to the study, which excluded the 2% of homicide cases resolved in Juvenile Court.

Thirty-eight percent of the sheriff's cases ended in charges being filed.

Fifty-four percent of LAPD cases ended in charges being filed.

But those numbers only tell part of the story. LAPD cases are more likely to fall apart in court.

When all is said and done, about one in three of the homicides each agency investigates ends in a murder or manslaughter conviction.

The figures do not include roughly 5% of cases countywide where the suspect died or other circumstances barred prosecution.

Differences in the agencies' approaches are obvious to many prosecutors and defense attorneys, who say that sheriff's homicide cases in general are more thoroughly investigated.

"Due to inexperience or lack of zeal," some detectives fail to properly develop their cases, said Michael Montagna, a high-ranking prosecutor.

"Is it more common with LAPD than other departments?" Montagna added. "It seems to me that is the case."

When told of his agency's low arrest but high conviction rate, Sheriff's Capt. Mauro said: "I'll be embarrassed all to hell over a 40% clearance rate." But he said the study supports his view that his department has a legacy of high-quality investigations.

LAPD Deputy Chief White said his department lacks "the manpower, money and logistics to turn over every stone" in a murder case.

"I'll tell you this, I'll put our homicide [detectives] up against anybody in this country."

Even within the LAPD, some parts of town are far more likely to see justice served than others. The South Bureau homicide division is least likely to solve a case; the West and Valley bureaus are more likely to see cases solved, the study shows.

In some areas of just a few square blocks in South-Central, two dozen or more homicides were reported in the five-year period--and up to two-thirds went unsolved.

In other neighborhoods, on the Westside and in the Valley, there were no homicides reported throughout the five-year period.

LAPD officials say many factors account for differences from bureau to bureau, and from the city of Los Angeles to other parts of the county.

For one thing, there is the issue of personnel. In gang-ridden parts of town, LAPD officers are expected to handle 20 or more murder cases a year. Sheriff's detectives work about 14 cases each.

Prosecutors say that once a case gets to court, LAPD detectives are not as willing or able as the Sheriff's Department to help them by doing more investigation.

"That's probably true," said veteran LAPD Det. Kelly Baitx. "There are times they call up and we say we don't have the time."

The Courthouses

One reason LAPD cases fall apart more frequently in court may be that most of its cases are prosecuted at the downtown Criminal Courts Building, also known as the central courthouse.

Cases turn out differently, the study found, depending on where charges are filed and trials are held.

At the central courthouse, the largest in the county and the site of the Simpson criminal trial, more than a quarter of all defendants had their cases dismissed or were acquitted. About a third were convicted of murder.

At the other end of the spectrum are a group of suburban courthouses--Torrance, Norwalk, Pomona and Lancaster. Only 12% of defendants had their cases dismissed or were acquitted, while about half were convicted of murder.

Each of the county's 11 Superior Court buildings has its own distinctive culture, partly dependent on the characteristics of the surrounding communities.

In the central courthouse, prosecutors are more likely to face juries composed of residents of inner-city neighborhoods where skepticism about the police abounds.

That also is a problem prosecutors face in Compton, said Stephen Kay, former head of that branch of the district attorney's office.

"If you are prosecuting someone for spitting on the sidewalk and your only witness is a police officer, you'd better have the saliva tested for DNA," Kay said.

Half a county and a world away, the former head of the public defender's office in Beverly Hills described a community that embraces the police. "There is a tacit understanding that it is OK to stop anyone who looks like they don't belong," said Mark Zuckman. "And that would include anyone driving a car more than four years old."

At the central courthouse, the surrounding population has half as many whites and twice as many blacks and Latinos as the neighborhoods around most of the county's courthouses, according to an analysis by the Los Angeles County jury commissioner.

The importance of jury composition was highlighted in a Los Angeles County public defender study of cases where the defendants were eligible for the death penalty.

Nine of 10 eligible defendants got death sentences at the Pomona courthouse from 1990 through 1992. At the downtown courthouse, none of the 15 eligible defendants got death.

"Could there be anything more arbitrary or capricious in whether a person should live or die than whether he is judged by people who live in one part of the county or another part of the county some 30 miles removed?" asked retired public defender Gessler.

Deputy Public Defender Leslie Falick thought she needed a more sympathetic jury panel than she was likely to find in Santa Monica, where she was representing a black gang member accused of killing a white woman.

To increase her client's chances of escaping the death penalty, she persuaded the judge to import some jurors from other parts of the county. Falick got five blacks and a Mexican American as jurors and alternates.

This amounted to a "downtown jury," recalled Deputy Dist. Atty. Stephen Barshop. The panel had difficulty reaching a verdict and spared the defendant's life.

Juror skepticism only explains part of what makes downtown cases different, prosecutors say.

To the degree that outside pressures affect a case, anonymity is the antidote. And in the bustling downtown courthouse, cases are far less likely to attract attention from anyone who is not directly involved.

"There is not the same sense of community as Torrance or Van Nuys, where people see the local courthouse as the center of their government and justice," said Peter Berman, a veteran district attorney supervisor.

No matter where a case is tried, there is another factor that can make similar cases come out differently: the luck of the draw.

A case can turn on the style, temperament or capability of the defense attorney, prosecutor or judge who happens to be assigned to it, attorneys say.

"We all have a notion that justice is sacred, with underlying rules," said veteran Deputy Public Defender Verah Bradford.

But the outcomes of murder cases sometimes rest on factors that, ideally, would be irrelevant. "It can be as simple as whether the prosecutor has a scheduled vacation--and will be more inclined to dispose of the case," Bradford said.

"It can be as simple as whether the district attorney is trying to get promoted--and feels more pressure to show toughness."

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Racial and Ethnic Factors

In raw numbers, homicide outcomes differed according to the race or ethnicity of the victim. When other factors including circumstances of the murder and characteristics of the victim were statistically factored in, the differences were even greater. The odds that killings of whites would be solved were about 1.4 times greater than the odds that killings of blacks or Latinos would be solved. Conversely, the odds that murders of blacks would be solved were only about 0.8 times as great as odds that those of whites would be solved. The same pattern held for filing capital charges.

MURDER PROBES

When victims were...

Black

- Unsolved: 46%

- Arrest made: 50%

- Other (1): 4%

*

Latino

- Unsolved: 48%

- Arrest made: 47%

- Other (1): 5%

*

White

- Unsolved: 37%

- Arrest made: 55%

- Other (1): 9%

(1) Other categories include cases where the suspect is dead or beyond the reach of law enforcement.

CAPITAL CRIMES

When victims were...

Black

Capital charges filed: 7%

Convictions (2): 3%

*

Latino

Capital charges filed: 6%

Convictions (2): 3%

*

White

Capital charges filed: 15%

Convictions (2): 9%

(2) Includes death sentences and life without possibility of parole.

ODDS THAT CASE WAS SOLVED

(please see newspaper for chart information)

ODDS THAT CAPITAL CHARGES WERE FILED

(please see newspaper for chart information)

*

Note: The baseline for measuring the odds ratio for each racial group is 1.0.

Source: L.A. Times Homicide Study

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Seeking Solutions

Experts offer solutions to inequities in the handling of homicides:

' ...."I think it takes the education of the community to face the fact that all cases are not handled in the same manner. [Authorities] say they are, but the statistics show different. . . . The public really has to put the pressure on and not give up."

--Eleanor Montano,

county human relations commissioner

"The lives of minorities are treated with less concern than the lives of whites in the criminal justice system. . . . The governor and Legislature need . . . to establish a . . . commission [to] deal with . . . how the system treats people of color, both as victims and defendants."

--Vincent Schiraldi, Center on Juvenile and Criminal Justice, Washington, D.C.

"Sometimes we cannot get the information we need to proceed on an investigation. It is everything from, 'We will take care of it ourselves' to witness intimidation. . . . I think those factors have as much, if not more, to do with the solve rate than some of the other things [like race]."

--Torrance Police Chief Joseph DeLadurantey, former LAPD captain

"There is a tremendous illegal immigration problem here and a number of murders are committed by illegals. Many are almost impossible to solve . . . because they go back to Mexico [or other home countries]. By the time we get a fingerprint check on the guy, he's gone."

--Former LAPD Chief Daryl F. Gates

Reported by Times staff writer Greg Krikorian

'The overwhelming fact that determines the likely outcome is the background of the victim. If they are white, or if they are black but not from the projects, that

will make a difference.'

--Deputy Public

Defender

Bruce Schweiger

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How the Study Was Performed

Over the last 20 months, The Times has conducted a computer-assisted study of homicides in Los Angeles County from 1990 through 1994.

The study, covering 9,442 slayings, traced the handling of cases through each step of the criminal justice system. Excluded from the study were accidental, vehicular and justifiable homicides.

The study examined whether race, media attention and the class of victims and defendants had any bearing on outcomes. It also studied the role of police agencies and courthouses.

The analysis was conducted on databases created from a variety of sources. Data about victims, including race, largely was obtained from the county coroner's office and the state health department. Many crime details, such as the type of slaying, were secured through the state Department of Justice.

No agency keeps a comprehensive database that tracks the details of all homicide prosecutions. So the newspaper created its own master list of defendants, reconciling computerized lists from the Superior Court, the municipal courts and the district attorney. Then a team of researchers, supervised by staff writers Ted Rohrlich and Fredric N. Tulsky, collected and coded information from more than 5,000 court files.

The study also examined which homicides received Times coverage during the five-year period. For comparison, it looked at homicide coverage by eight suburban newspapers during a two-month period.

Databases were constructed and merged by Richard O'Reilly, director of computer analysis, and Sandra Poindexter, a data analyst. Professor Richard A. Berk, director of the UCLA Statistical Consulting Center and an expert on criminal justice, analyzed the data. Graduate student Cathie Lee trained court researchers and assisted Berk. Dwight Morris of the Campaign Study Group in Virginia served as a consultant on the project.

Editorial researcher Nona Yates and former librarian Mary Edwards, who supervised the media study, contributed to the project. Court data was collected by freelance researchers Christina Verdin, Gary Tharp, Colleen Lacey, John Weems, Jon Garcia, Roger Teft, Christina Chang, John Gonzales, Louisa Toot, Chris Bates, Nicole Doll and Ty Brown.

Interns Erin Texeira, Antonio Olivo, Margaret Ramirez, Ealena Callender, Paul Johnson, Lorenza Munoz, Jose Cardenas, Emi Endo and Kenneth Chang helped obtain data from police divisions concerning case outcomes.

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Outcomes: Police Agencies

The Los Angeles Police Department solved a higher percentage of its murder cases than the Los Angeles Sheriff's Department, but the LAPD cases didn't hold up as well in court. Among departments with 25 or more homicides, Torrance had the best overall record and Inglewood the worst.

*--*

% where % of % of Homicides charges cases manslaughter Department 1990-94 were filed dismissed convictions L.A. Police 5,130 54% 8% 16% L.A. Cty. Sheriff 2,470 38 3 11 Long Beach Police 472 44 2 13 Compton Police 364 39 8 12 Inglewood Police 225 16 1 4 Pomona Police 179 36 4 6 Pasadena Police 92 60 12 14 Gardena Police 50 36 2 14 Sta. Monica Police 46 46 2 20 West Covina Police 36 56 3 17 Glendale Police 31 61 10 23 Whittier Police 29 45 3 21 Huntington Park Police 28 25 4 7 Downey Police 27 44 15 7 Torrance Police 27 59 0 4 Burbank Police 25 64 12 12 All other depts. 211 36 4 14

% of murder Department convictions L.A. Police 16% L.A. Cty. Sheriff 17 Long Beach Police 19 Compton Police 12 Inglewood Police 7 Pomona Police 20 Pasadena Police 21 Gardena Police 16 Sta. Monica Police 13 West Covina Police 25 Glendale Police 19 Whittier Police 17 Huntington Park Police 14 Downey Police 19 Torrance Police 48 Burbank Police 28 All other depts. 14

*--*

Note: Countywide, police clear another 5% of murders whether the suspect is dead or otherwise beyond the reach of law enforcement. Excludes cases resolved in juvenile court.

Source: Los Angeles Times Homicide Study

Nearly half of all homicide cases are prosecuted in the Los Angeles County central courthouse in downtown Los Angeles, where the lowest percentage of cases ended up with a conviction for murder. Pomona, Torrance, Norwalk and Lancaster are the toughest courts, with about half the defendants being convicted of murder.

*--*

CASES WITH FINAL OUTCOMES ONLY % of % of Court Cases % of manslaughter murder branch 1990-94 dismissals convictions convictions Central 2,429 23% 33% 32% Compton 638 19 34 34 Long Beach 431 8 37 39 Pomona 325 11 26 54 Norwalk 317 13 32 48 San Fernando 293 12 42 34 Van Nuys 234 18 31 37 Torrance 225 6 34 55 Pasadena 198 23 29 36 Santa Monica 185 14 30 42 Lancaster 92 4 38 49

*--*

Note: All percentages based on completed cases only. Countywide: 4% of completed cases ended in acquittal and 8% in conviction of crimes less serious than homicide.

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