Court Tangle Intensifies Over Credibility of Police Witness
A man who said two months ago that Los Angeles police officers coerced him into falsely identifying a murder suspect has since been arrested on a rape charge, and now stands at the center of a swirling--and until Thursday--secretive court battle over his credibility.
Police say Evelio “Rudy” Carrillo has recanted his allegations against officers in the murder investigation, but a defense attorney involved in the case said Carrillo says police pressured him to retract the allegations even though he maintains they are true.
Meanwhile, the same Police Department that seeks Carrillo’s testimony in the murder case now accuses him of lying in the rape case.
The charges and countercharges in all of this are complicated and conflicting, but the consequences are direct and real. Carrillo’s testimony could help send one man to prison for murder, or it could implicate police officers in wrongdoing. And his credibility could decide whether he spends many years behind bars.
Moreover, the conflicting impressions of Carrillo’s credibility help underscore a problem that bedevils authorities as they try to probe allegations of police corruption within the LAPD: the alleged victims of that corruption are often problematic witnesses.
At issue in the murder case is a sworn declaration that Carrillo signed in April and provided to The Times in which he alleged that an anti-gang CRASH officer and a homicide detective from the Rampart Division intimidated him into saying he was an eyewitness to a shooting he never saw.
Six weeks after The Times published an article about those allegations, Carrillo was arrested by Rampart Division officers on suspicion of rape. He has pleaded not guilty to that charge and is being held without bail.
Hours after he was arrested and interviewed on the rape charge, Carrillo was taken to police headquarters and questioned by internal affairs detectives about the allegations he made against officers in the murder case. Police officials say Carrillo, after extensive questioning, recanted his accusations against the officers and said he did witness the murder.
In a confidential letter to the prosecutor handling the murder case, LAPD Cmdr. James S. McMurray wrote that a preliminary investigation had determined that the allegations against the officers “are false.”
But just days later, Carrillo, without police present, reasserted his earlier allegations against the officers, according to a lawyer involved in the case.
Deputy Public Defender Alec Henderson, who represents murder defendant Jose Luis Oliverria, said he interviewed Carrillo in jail after the police interrogations, and Carrillo insisted that police--this time internal affairs investigators--pressured him to withdraw his allegations.
“He told them what they wanted to hear,” said Henderson. That would be helpful to Henderson’s case, which would greatly benefit from Carrillo stating that he did not witness the slaying with which Oliverria is charged.
Henderson, who also has listened to the audiotapes of the internal affairs interview of Carrillo, said the investigators browbeat him into recanting.
“He was worn down through repeated psychological coercive techniques,” Henderson said. “I was surprised to see that internal affairs was so interested in trying to rehabilitate these [officers].
“They were insistent on compelling the version of the story that they wanted to hear, and repelling [Carrillo’s] oft-repeated version that he knew nothing about this homicide” and was coerced by police into saying he did, Henderson added.
On the tapes, Carrillo can be heard repeatedly asking for a break so that he can sleep. Given that, Henderson said, “I was impressed with the degree of consistency he was able to maintain” before he changed his story.
LAPD Cmdr. David J. Kalish defended the interview techniques of the internal affairs investigators, who questioned Carrillo over three days.
“The internal investigation is being conducted in a professional, appropriate manner,” Kalish said. “We have the greatest confidence in the investigators who are assigned to the case.”
He added that LAPD investigators believe Carrillo was lying when he implicated the officers and telling the truth when he retracted those allegations. The investigation is ongoing, he said.
Further complicating the strange tale of Rudy Carrillo is the fact that for weeks it unfolded almost entirely out of public view.
Despite a backdrop of allegations of widespread corruption at the Rampart Division, Superior Court Commissioner Michael Price temporarily had ordered attorneys and other participants not to discuss certain details about the case.
Court proceedings in the murder case had been cloaked in secrecy out of concern for Carrillo’s safety. Prosecutors argued that the young man was in danger and that disclosing the reasons he was in danger in open court would only add to his peril.
As a result, court documents in the matter were filed under seal. At times, even Oliverria--the murder defendant--was excluded from court hearings in his own case.
“This was another sorry example of the police, through the city attorney and now, the district attorney, duping judges into issuing unnecessary protection orders that conceal officer misconduct,” said Los Angeles County Public Defender Michael P. Judge.
On Thursday, after hearing arguments from attorneys from the Los Angeles Times and the public defender’s office, Price opened all proceedings to the public and unsealed previously secret court documents. The documents reveal that Carrillo told police that he disavowed witnessing the murder Oliverria is accused of committing because he was afraid of being executed by the Mexican Mafia for cooperating with authorities.
Henderson said Carrillo told him during the jailhouse interview that he felt no such fear.
If Carrillo did fear retribution for identifying Oliverria in the murder case, as he told police, it is unclear why he continues to implicate the man in an unsolved armed robbery. Doing so would appear to put Carrillo in the same jeopardy as testifying in the murder case.
In fact, under California’s three-strikes law, a robbery conviction in Oliverria’s case could send him to prison for life because he has two previous felony convictions, his attorney said.
Kalish, after discussing the case on Thursday with Internal Affairs Lt. Philip S. Fontanetta, said he was at loss to explain why Carrillo continued to implicate Oliverria in another serious crime.
Carrillo’s shifting accounts are not the first time that the prosecution has hit a snag in its murder case against Oliverria. Problems with that case started in March when Det. John Curiel, then a Rampart Division homicide detective, testified at length at a preliminary hearing about his involvement in the case the night of the killing.
Curiel testified under questioning from a prosecutor that he went to the hospital and interviewed relatives of the dead man, Wilber Escobar. He also testified that he viewed the body, even describing the location of a bullet hole.
During cross-examination by defense attorney Henderson, however, the detective admitted that he had not been working that night.
Curiel, who has since been reassigned from homicide, told The Times in April that he had simply confused the case with another he had worked. But he did not know which case in particular he was thinking of. The detective said he had done nothing intentionally wrong in the case.
After the preliminary hearing, The Times located and interviewed Carrillo, a key prosecution witness in the murder case. He said that he told Officer Dustin Sclater and Det. Curiel that he knew nothing of the Dec. 4, 1998 drive-by shooting they were investigating.
Nonetheless, he said, the officers showed him a six-pack photo array that contained a picture of Oliverria and the picture had a circle around it.
The officers, Carrillo said in April, “were trying to give me a hint . . . saying that was him, you know, to pick him out.”
Carrillo said officers coerced him into falsely identifying Oliverria with implied threats, repeatedly mentioning that Carrillo had come up in other unsolved crimes, including murder.
Officer Sclater and his partner at the time, Ross Hay, denied any wrongdoing through their attorney, Lloyd K. Chapman.
Chapman said the officers didn’t want to discuss the matter until the internal affairs investigation was completed.