Prosecutors said Wednesday that they will retry the assault case against former Inglewood Police Officer Jeremy Morse, who was caught on videotape last summer slamming a handcuffed teenager onto a car and striking him in the face.
“We will retry this case to bring this matter to some sort of just resolution for the community,” said Los Angeles County Dist. Atty. Steve Cooley. “Given seven voted guilty here, it was an easy decision to make.”
The decision came the day after a jury that deliberated three days deadlocked, telling the judge their 7-5 split in favor of conviction was insurmountable.
One juror interviewed Wednesday said the discussions were contentious but civil, with all but one participant sticking to his or her initial judgment about Morse throughout deliberations. Given the near-even division, he questioned whether another jury could reach a unanimous verdict.
“The tape was the big thing,” said Patrick R. Morris, 37, of Westchester. “We played that over and over and over ... but people saw different things.”
Superior Court Judge Williams R. Hollingsworth Jr. declared a mistrial in the case.
Cooley said Wednesday that he had directed his deputies to file a motion with Hollingsworth seeking a retrial as soon as possible.
“The evidence is there. The witnesses are ready,” Cooley said.
John Barnett, Morse’s attorney, said he anticipated the decision. He said he will still file a motion to dismiss the case, because he thinks that no jury would vote to convict.
The closely watched case attracted national attention and sparked outrage after the videotape of the white officer striking a black teenager was widely broadcast on television.
Convincing jurors that Morse committed a felony punishable by three years in prison proved difficult for prosecutors.
“People who were thinking guilty were focused on the head slam on the car,” said juror Morris.
But he said those who thought Morse, 25, was not guilty believed that the tape showed Donovan Jackson, then 16, to be alert and potentially still a threat to Morse.
“Their point was that he had been resisting arrest and should be considered dangerous because of that,” said Morris, who voted to convict the former police officer. They felt that “Morse had to use some force on him to assert his authority to get him to do what he wanted to do.”
One juror who initially voted not guilty switched to guilty, Morris said, but the others stayed firm.
Morse’s former partner, Bijan Darvish, 26, was acquitted of filing a false police report. Prosecutors presented no witnesses in his case, offering the jurors only the police report he filed and the videotape that showed part of the incident, saying they proved that his report omitted crucial details.
Morris said it took the jury only about 10 minutes to acquit Darvish. His attorney, Ronald Brower, said Darvish never saw the car slam. Brower pointed out that Darvish stated in his police report that he had punched Jackson himself during an initial struggle before the teenager was handcuffed, which he said was not the behavior of someone trying to hide anything.
Darvish was on unpaid leave from the Inglewood force during the trial and is expected back at work any day, according to Brower. Although brutality cases are hard to prove in many circumstances, legal experts said that prosecutors’ own miscues and questionable strategies made it even more difficult for the jury to convict Morse. Several lawyers said the case should have been prosecuted as misdemeanor battery, not felony assault under the color of authority.
“It was such a national story, and I think in those cases they tend to overcharge,” said attorney Richard G. Hirsch, who has defended police officers for 20 years.
The prosecution’s most controversial move came when Deputy Dist. Attys. Michael Pettersen and Max Huntsman called an expert in police use of force who took a different view of their case. The witness, Charles Heal, told jurors that he would not have recommended filing criminal charges against the three-year veteran.
Heal, a commander in the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department, said that Morse’s actions were excessive but that he should have been disciplined, not prosecuted. Under cross-examination, Heal went on to express empathy for Morse and other police officers placed in similar situations.
His testimony struck a chord with jurors, said Morris, especially Heal’s vivid descriptions of how officers must make split-second decisions in stressful situations. Muscles engorge, pupils dilate, hearts race, he said, and officers often react without thinking. Heal said he once, in the middle of a heated situation, fired his weapon but didn’t realize it until afterward.
“That really stuck in people’s heads,” said Morris, who added that such testimony from a “big” witness hurt the case: “For the prosecution it’s unfortunate.... I think it worked against them quite a bit.”
Some legal experts said they believed prosecutors should have objected during the defense cross-examination when Heal offered his opinion on whether the case should have been prosecuted
“It’s irrelevant whether he thinks it’s a crime,” said Hirsch. “That’s the province of the jury.”
Some lawyers speculated that prosecutors did not object because doing so would have called more attention to the statement. But had Heal’s statement been stricken from the record, defense attorneys could not have used it repeatedly in their closing arguments.
Prosecutors also ran into trouble with Jackson’s testimony, which Morris said was discounted by the jury because of his confused and sometimes contradictory statements.
Jackson, who suffers from an auditory disorder that impairs his ability to communicate, refused an officer’s order to sit in a patrol car, which led to the struggle. He testified that he was unconscious while being hoisted onto the car, but Morris said Jackson’s inconsistent statements undermined his testimony.
Morse’s attorneys argued that the tape showed a limp Jackson, who was in effect “passively resisting.”
Prosecutors concentrated almost exclusively on the car slam, as even one of their own use-of-force experts said there was evidence that Jackson may have grabbed Morse’s testicles, prompting him to punch Jackson in the face. If Morse was grabbed, use of force would have been justified, experts agreed.
Morris and six other jurors were persuaded that the car slam was unjustified.
“I just couldn’t see any way that throwing him on the trunk was necessary, even if he was passively resisting,” he said.
Legal experts said the deep division in the jurors, however, may point to continued difficulty in convicting Morse of a felony.
The jurors’ reactions were typical of police abuse cases, said experts. Many people are willing to give officers the benefit of the doubt -- reflecting a “schizophrenic”’ attitude that people have on use-of-force issues, said David Klinger, a professor of criminology and criminal justice at the University of Missouri at St. Louis.
“If we run around and second-guess police officers and start throwing them in prison,” said Klinger, " ... we as a people realize that the more fearful cops are of being prosecuted, the less aggressive they will be of protecting us.”
Peter Arenella, a professor at UCLA School of Law, called Heal’s sympathetic testimony about a fellow officer and the sharply divided opinion of jurors “a classic example of why it’s so hard to prosecute police officers on excessive use of force.”
“Reasonable people can disagree,” he said. “Some jurors are very willing to give officers the benefit of the doubt in a close case like this.”
The district attorney’s office said Wednesday that a decision on who would prosecute Morse next time had not yet been made.
Cooley said he believed the case was “straightforward.”
“When the handcuffs go on, there has to be extraordinary circumstances for a use of force to be justified,” he said. “No further force should have be applied in this circumstance.”
He defended the performance of his prosecutors and declined to analyze the trial.
“I have a great deal of admiration for their diligence and skills,” Cooley said. “I am not going to engage in Monday morning quarterbacking like some of those outside the courtroom.”
Juror Morris questioned whether the results of a second trial would be any different.
“In any representative sampling of people I think you’ll find that some people consider [Morse’s actions] OK,” he said. “There are some people who don’t. But it just seems to me that some people think in order for the police to make the streets safe, they will have to beat some heads once in a while.”
Times staff writers Richard Winton and Jean Merl contributed to this report.