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Police Shootout Case Ends in Mistrial

TIMES STAFF WRITERS

Reflecting a public divided over police tactics, a federal court jury deadlocked 9 to 3 Thursday in favor of the city and two retired police officers accused in a civil rights lawsuit of letting a bank robbery suspect bleed to death as he lay face down, his hands cuffed behind his back, in a North Hollywood street.

U.S. District Judge Christina A. Snyder declared a mistrial and set Sept. 26 as the date for the new trial in the case that grew out of the violent events of Feb. 28, 1997. Federal court demands unanimous verdicts even in civil suits, unless the parties agree to waive the requirement.

The jurors told Snyder late Wednesday that they had reached an impasse, and she sent them back to continue deliberations. But at 10:12 a.m. Thursday, the panel sent the judge a second note, saying they were hopelessly deadlocked:

“We have not come to our decisions easily,” the jurors wrote. “We believe that each one of us has made his/her conscientious decision and will not change their honest beliefs. We cannot reach a unanimous decision.”

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Afterward, three jurors described the nearly four days of deliberations as difficult and emotional. Tears welled in the eyes of Taura Scott as she recalled the “arduous and heart-wrenching” discussions. “There was a lot of passion in that room,” she said.

The three jurors who sided with the plaintiffs ducked out the courthouse’s back door without commenting.

The mistrial was a surprising result for an unpopular case originally derided by armchair legal experts as frivolous, a “no-brainer” win for the city.

Loyola Law School Associate Dean Laurie Levenson said the deadlock signals a shifting attitude toward police.

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“It definitely says that the police don’t have a green light to do whatever they want, and that whatever they do is going to be viewed with some suspicion, even in the most extreme circumstances,” she said.

In the current climate, she added, “the police are starting at a different point. They used to be saluted. Now they’re being viewed with some skepticism.”

But prominent criminal defense attorney Harland W. Braun said public sentiment against the plaintiffs’ case may have played a role in the deadlock.

“My analysis is, the jurors were torn between doing what the evidence indicated and being laughed at by their neighbors. . . . Would you like to go home and have everybody think you’re a moron?”

According to testimony, two bank robbers--clad in body armor and firing large-caliber, metal-jacketed bullets from military assault weapons--sprayed about 11,000 rounds during a 44-minute gun battle with police. One gunman, Larry Eugene Phillips Jr., took his own life as police closed in; the other, Emil Matasareanu, died on a residential side street, where he lay wounded for nearly an hour.

Two policemen--West Valley Officer John Futrell and Foothill Division burglary Det. James Vojtecky--were accused in the civil suit of waving ambulance crews away from Matasareanu, who was bleeding heavily from 29 gunshot wounds. The city of Los Angeles also was named as a defendant.

The jury panel was diverse, featuring four African Americans, four whites, three Asians and a Latino. During jury selection, some of them said they were inclined to believe police testimony, while others were more skeptical. All had heard or read about the ongoing corruption scandal in the LAPD’s Rampart Division.

From the beginning of their deliberations, jurors said, the majority believed that the officers on the scene did the best they could in the minutes after the wild shootout with men who clearly had far more firepower.

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To find in favor of the plaintiffs--Matasareanu’s sons, ages 8 and 4--jurors would have had to determine that Futrell and Vojtecky acted with deliberate indifference by denying the suspect prompt medical care.

The officers denied that accusation, and other witnesses for the city testified that Matasareanu was too badly wounded to save.

Scott said she and several other jurors “flip-flopped” more than once before deciding in favor of the police. “Did the officers let this man die?” juror Scott asked. “I absolutely did not find it.”

Juror Martin Quiroz, a retired auto dealership supervisor, agreed: “In my gut, the officers did the best thing . . . under the circumstances.”

A third juror said the police may have been negligent but did not deliberately ignore Matasareanu’s medical needs. “They just let things fall through the cracks,” said juror Norma Hutchinson, who works for Claremont Graduate University.

Plaintiffs’ attorneys Stephen Yagman and Victor Sherman claimed that Vojtecky waved an ambulance away from Matasareanu within minutes of his capture and did not summon another until nearly an hour later. By the time the second ambulance arrived, Matasareanu was dead.

Attorneys for Futrell, Vojtecky and the city painted a scene of chaos and fear, during which officers and ambulance crews were fired upon by the fleeing suspects and radio broadcasts referring to possible other suspects continued long after Matasareanu was taken into custody. The defense case featured testimony from a wounded police officer, who also faced a long wait for an ambulance.

“Did I see negligence? Yes, absolutely,” said juror Scott, an administrative assistant at Cal State L.A. “I saw chaos and bungling, but deliberate indifference? That wasn’t there.”

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Scott and Hutchinson said that they believed the testimony of Futrell and Vojtecky, and that the LAPD corruption scandal--which include allegations of officer perjury--played no role in their decision-making.

Yagman, who had earlier declared the case unwinnable, said he would return for trial “again and again for as long as it takes.”

Later, at his beachfront office in Venice, he said he did not believe that a retrial would yield a different result. “It was impossible to prevail in this case. This is an unwinnable case” because Matasareanu’s crimes, including the wounding of police and civilians, were heinous, he said.

Still, he added, waging a new trial is the right thing to do. “The LAPD engaged in unthinkable cruelty” letting Matasareanu die, he said.

In typical fashion, Yagman, who has made a career of suing the LAPD, launched into a rhetorical broadside against the department, saying the failure of the city to win “this impossible case” is a wake-up call about how it will fare in forthcoming lawsuits over the Rampart scandal. He said the city “best brace for bankruptcy.”

Assistant City Atty. Don Vincent said he was surprised by the deadlock, adding that he believed the defense had presented a strong case. And Bradley Gage, lawyer for Futrell, said he was encouraged that nine of the jurors believed his client.

Gage denounced Yagman as “irresponsible” for filing a suit he didn’t think he could win. “It’s unfortunate that he’s treating this like a game,” he said. “It’s not a game when you’re in a lawsuit and your family is suffering.”

Vojtecky said he had hoped for a final decision, “but if that’s what it takes, another trial, then so be it.” The suit has cast a shadow over his long LAPD career, which included a tenacious investigation resulting in murder convictions against the leaders of a violent San Fernando Valley drug cartel.

The lowest point, Vojtecky said, was hearing Yagman describe him in court as a cold-blooded murderer.

“I thought I did a good job for 27 1/2 years. It’s a lousy feeling,” Vojtecky said.

Futrell complimented the jury for “an honest job” but said he dreads the financial impact another trial will have on his family. He has turned down the city’s lawyers, instead hiring Gage to represent him personally.

“Financially, it’s just devastating,” he said. “How am I going to survive and support my family?”


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