Rampart Scandal Colors Jury Deliberations

Patt Morrison's column appears Fridays. Her e-mail address is

Pick a cliche that applies: reaping what’s been sown, making your bed then lying in it, chickens coming home to roost.

Home to the Rampart Division. Home to the LAPD. Home to the courtroom.

Already, in the noxious wake of the Rampart bad-cop scandal, the L.A. city attorney’s office is noting an uptick in acquittals and hung juries, a few more jurors telling prosecutors they just didn’t believe the cops in the witness box.

Two streets over, in the district attorney’s office, some prosecutors are beginning to come back from court with tales of defense attorneys tearing with renewed zest into police credibility, like a mongoose after a cobra.


The cops in question may not even be from Rampart, where suspicions of evidence-planting and perjury have already opened the cell doors for four convicts.

But the Rampart contagion has managed to put every officer under the red quarantine of doubt. Like a city struck by the plague, only a few may be infected, but everyone is at risk.

So far, this is not a statistical surge; it is anecdotal, which is a word people use when they aren’t yet sure how serious matters are, or how serious they could get.

Ron Alberts was an alternate juror on a recent felony heroin case in a downtown courthouse, where jurors have long been more skeptical of cops than in outlying courts.

Not only did the defense call to the stand a man who claimed that one of the officers had once planted evidence on him, said Alberts, but “the defense attorney argued during his closing that ‘You may see this officer’s name in the paper one of these days, just like those guys in the Rampart Division.’ He went on and on about the cops lying and doing horrible things.” From first vote to last, the jury hung, 6 to 6.

Deputy City Atty. Bryan Bowers prosecuted two virtually identical cases--one before the Rampart scandal and one since--and the results could hardly have been more different.


Both defendants were accused of being on drugs, both admitted it at the time, both refused a urine test, Bowers said. Drug cases often boil down to cops’ word against defendants’. In Bowers’ first case, the jury convicted in 10 minutes.

Then came the second case, “the closest thing I’ve ever had,” said Bowers, “to a slam-dunk.” The cop was a veteran drug recognition expert, and the defendant gave what Bowers adjudged “one of the most ridiculous stories I’ve ever heard, that he just found the [PCP] cigarette and started smoking.”

Jurors deliberated two days and hung 11 to 1 not guilty. Bowers “couldn’t believe it. . . . It’s easier for defense attorneys to attack an officer’s credibility now. . . . If I’d tried this case a few months ago, it would have been found guilty. We’re losing a lot more cases now.”

Susan Zimber is the city attorney’s supervisor of central court trials. Just this week, she said, a juror brought up the Rampart scandal during deliberations. “The other jurors said, ‘No, we can’t consider that,’ but they still hung 10 to 2. The two said they just didn’t believe these officers.”

Fair or not, just or not, the object lesson: A few problem cops can become every cop’s problem.


City Atty. James Hahn saw this years ago, after the Rodney King beating.

His trial conviction rate dropped below 50%, and dollar awards in police use-of-force cases went stratospheric. In that Rodney King year of 1992, juries put it to the city to a record $21 million in police misconduct judgments.


By last year it was a more modest $5.5 million, and it seemed, said Hahn, “like we had just climbed out of this trench and jurors were now believing police officers and we were doing better--then this Rampart thing happened.”

Hahn expects “deja vu all over again,” close cases lost on police credibility, and big awards in use-of-

force cases. “The taxpayers,” said Hahn dolorously, “are going to pay a big price for Rampart.”


I just finished jury duty, which is to say that, as someone not considered juror material, I just finished two weeks of rejection and tedium.

So the question routinely put to jurors is fresh in my mind: whether a law enforcement officer would be more or less credible than a civilian witness. In other jury tours, I remember a lot more people favoring cops’ veracity. This time, only a couple of men, with friends in uniform somewhere, adjudged cops inherently more believable.

Abuse of authority registers in many shades, and both can burrow deep into the public perception and trust, from the beat cop who palms a free apple from a fruit stand every day, to the cop who stretches the truth of his testimony because, what the hell, the guy’s a bad dude who’ll end up in prison anyway, might just as well nail him now as later.


Prosecutors are anxious to convey two messages: To jurors, that not all cops are Rampart Rats, and to police, that those they protect and serve are taking this very seriously, and they had better too.