Rampart Probe May Now Affect Over 3,000 Cases
More than 3,000 questionable cases will have to be scrutinized as a result of the Rampart police scandal, vastly more than previously reported, and both Los Angeles County Dist. Atty. Gil Garcetti and Public Defender Michael Judge now say the massive review means they will need additional resources to handle the task.
“This is the biggest problem I have seen in my 31 years in the district attorney’s office,” said Garcetti, who already has seven prosecutors reviewing problem cases full time and said that number could multiply as his office reviews more cases.
Garcetti said there is no doubt that his office will seek the release of more inmates because of tainted convictions, though he is not certain how large the number ultimately will be.
He said it will probably take years for the scandal to be fully unraveled.
Judge agreed with his adversary that the scandal’s reach continues to expand and said: “People who saw ‘L.A. Confidential’ and said it could never happen now were wrong.” The movie was a saga of police corruption in 1950s Los Angeles.
The comments of those two top officials, made in interviews this week, indicate that the implications of the Rampart scandal, which already has resulted in a dozen officers being relieved of duty, are far bigger than previously disclosed and could consume local criminal justice resources well into the future. Garcetti and defense lawyers agreed that clearly not all the convictions would be overturned, but any cases involving suspect officers require scrutiny.
Judge’s top assistant, Robert Kalunian, said attorneys in their office and the alternate public defender’s office will have to review more than 800 potentially tainted cases involving former LAPD Officer Rafael Perez--who has been convicted of cocaine theft and is assisting authorities under a grant of immunity--and 2,500 more involving other officers from the Rampart CRASH anti-gang unit who either have been fired or are under investigation.
Those numbers represent a quantum leap in the estimates of turmoil in the criminal justice system; previously, most local officials had put the number of cases at about 500. And even with the growing number of cases, some local defense lawyers complain that prosecutors are being too slow in releasing information, making it difficult to know the full scope of the problem.
Kalunian said the public defender’s office already is making a second review of some of Perez’s cases that initially were deemed unworthy of further review because the officer had not played a critical role in them. Subsequently, however, it was discovered that Perez’s partner, Nino Durden, who also has been relieved of duty, was involved in those cases, prompting the need for a second review, Kalunian said.
“With each new disclosure, there is a multiplier effect,” said Los Angeles attorney Merrick J. Bobb, special counsel to the county Board of Supervisors and a nationally recognized expert on police misconduct.
So far, the district attorney’s office has gone to court to obtain the release of four inmates who prosecutors concluded had been improperly convicted. In addition, the district attorney’s office has persuaded judges to vacate the convictions of seven other individuals who are no longer in custody. Evidence has come to light suggesting that people have been framed, illegally beaten and shot without justification.
One other sign of how seriously Garcetti regards the scandal: Last week, he transferred R. Dan Murphy, who had been the head of the district attorney’s Pasadena office, back downtown to head the office’s Rampart task force.
Murphy, who once was one of Garcetti’s three highest-ranking assistant district attorneys, will supervise six prosecutors in the office’s special investigations division.
Garcetti said the task force has three priorities:
* “To do whatever we need to do to get anyone out of prison who is wrongfully imprisoned.”
* “To assist the chief of police in getting rid of any officer who does not deserve to wear the badge of the Los Angeles Police Department.”
* “To develop sufficient evidence that will lead to successful prosecution and state prison sentences for officers who have violated their oaths as peace officers.”
The district attorney’s office has yet to indict anyone in the Rampart scandal, but Garcetti left little doubt that criminal cases will be filed. “I can’t tell you whether we will wind up with three, four or five dirty cops or 25 or more,” he said.
Garcetti said it is his goal to conduct the Rampart probe within his existing budget, but he said he doubts that that is possible. “It is most likely too large,” he said.
Similarly, Judge said that he expects to ask the Board of Supervisors for additional resources because of Rampart. Reviewing all the old convictions “is a significant workload increase,” he said.
The office is attempting to prioritize cases depending on the status of the defendant. Highest priority is going to people currently in custody. Lowest priority are people who have been deported as a result of a conviction and may be impossible to find. In the middle are individuals who have been released but whose conviction may be tainted and for whom exoneration could yield important benefits.
“Most of these cases are felonies, and as a result of the felony, a person can lose their driver’s license, right to vote, right to get bonded [for a particular profession],” Judge said. “All of those things are part of the human toll this takes when we have these false convictions.”
Several defense lawyers acknowledged that some clients who already are free do not want to have their cases reopened, for a variety of reasons--among them simply a desire to have no further contact with the criminal justice system.
Officers’ Testimony Often Critical
In addition, defense lawyers said some cases clearly do not warrant reopening because their clients were convicted on the strength of corroborating evidence and police officers’ testimony was not critical to the outcome.
But in most criminal cases, officers’ testimony is critical, which is what makes the Rampart situation so grave, Garcetti said.
“Nearly every case to some extent, and usually to a great extent, relies on the credibility of your police officers,” he said. “If you as a citizen, juror, judge, prosecutor, do not have faith in your officer . . . you cannot have a criminal justice system. You have to have faith the officer is being fair and objective.”
Despite the turmoil caused by the recent scandal, Garcetti took pains to “give LAPD some credit. They are the ones that discovered this--not an outside agency--and came to us. . . . We are cleaning up this mess.”
But defense lawyers say there has to be a bigger role for them if the true extent of the scandal is to be unearthed.
So far, they maintain that the district attorney’s office has provided defense lawyers--or their former clients--only bare bones information that there may be a problem with an old conviction because of the involvement of Perez or one of the other officers.
Garcetti said the office is not making some information public for fear of jeopardizing its ongoing criminal investigation.
Sandi Gibbons, the district attorney’s spokeswoman, said the office is providing the information it is required to under the California Evidence Code.
She said the district attorney is not obligated to provide information on an officer when there is merely a suspicion that the officer has done something wrong.
In notifying defense lawyers or their clients of potential problems in the cases against them, prosecutors have sent letters warning them that a police officer either has been charged with a crime, convicted of a crime or found guilty of misconduct by a police disciplinary board.
All the letters tell the defense lawyer that the information is being provided because the officer “provided, or may have provided, inculpatory evidence” against their client, “so that you may take whatever action you deem appropriate. If you need further information, you may contact the Los Angeles Police Department.”
The letters do not say anything specific about the officer’s role in that lawyer’s case. “I have a pile of the letters,” said Cathy Dreyfuss, director of the Los Angeles County Bar’s Indigent Defense Assistance Program. “There is no way to know from the letter whether it involves Rampart or what the specific problem is.”
Consequently, defense lawyers say they need more information to assess their cases. However, when they have tried to get more information from the police or the district attorney, they have hit a “brick wall,” said Albert Menaster, who heads the appellate division of the public defender’s office.
Under the landmark 1963 U.S. Supreme Court decision of Brady vs. Maryland, prosecutors are required to disclose to defendants all potentially exculpatory information. Menaster said defense attorneys interpret that to mean all information about an officer that could impeach his testimony. But he said prosecutors are maintaining that it refers only to information about the officer’s actions in the case at issue.
Defense Lawyers Face Restrictions
An additional problem for the defense lawyers is that California case law gives them limited rights to obtain potentially exculpatory discovery material when seeking post-conviction review of a case. In 1990, in the wake of a scandal stemming from the use of jailhouse informants in Los Angeles, the California Supreme Court ruled 5 to 2 that convicted criminals seeking to overturn their convictions have no legal right to “fish” through official files to confirm “mere speculation” of wrongdoing.
The court said that after their convictions have been upheld, defendants bear the burden in any subsequent appeal and must provide “some concrete information” to justify further court-ordered investigation.
But the court cautioned that even “after a conviction, the prosecutor . . . is bound by the ethics of his office to inform the appropriate authority of information that casts doubt about the correctness of a conviction.”
Nonetheless, in a stinging dissent, then-Justice Allen E. Broussard asserted that the court majority had created a “Catch-22” situation in which a defendant could not pursue a constitutional challenge without facts--but at the same time had no effective way to obtain those facts.
Santa Monica defense lawyer Gigi Gordon, who represented the defendant in that case--People vs. Jesse Gonzalez--said Broussard’s prediction had come true and it was making it very difficult for defense lawyers in the current situation.
So far, that has limited defense attorneys mostly to culling their old files for possibly relevant information. As that information accumulates, however, lawyers may turn up new leads.
Deputy Public Defender Douglas J. Goldstein said he and his colleagues are in the process of building a database of questionable cases. That, he said, should help them figure out which cases need to be reopened.
Previous stories on the Rampart police scandal are available on The Times’ Web site:
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