No Closure at End of Police Trial
Days after a yearlong, much-anticipated police abuse trial ended here last week, half a dozen jurors, the vice mayor and other civic leaders are calling for a retrial in the case against three former police officers.
“The people of Oakland deserved answers,” one exhausted juror said. “After all this time, we’re right back where we started from.”
These are unsettling times for this stepsister of a city. Many waited months for a verdict in the case that ended with the acquittals of the officers on charges of beating and framing suspects and a mistrial on 27 others.
The trial confronted the prickly issues of race, of the police, and of justice granted or perhaps denied. And many African Americans saw the trial as a stark reminder of how little has changed.
Since the case ended last Tuesday, many jurors have been speaking out about the tone and tenor of their deliberations. They, along with the city’s vice mayor and numerous leaders of the black community, are calling on the district attorney to retry the case.
An Oct. 15 court date has been set for prosecutors to announce their decision on whether to seek another trial.
Shortly after the trial and verdicts, Mayor Jerry Brown suggested that the fractured jury reflects the division in his city. The acrimony in the confines of the jury room could be viewed as an example of that divide.
Jurors said that during the 55 days of deliberations, exchanges grew so bitter that threats were made and doors slammed. One member was ostracized for speaking out. Sides were taken. Some jurors refused lunch rather than be forced to socialize with the others.
Three ex-police officers -- Clarence Mabanag, Jude Siapno and Matthew Hornung -- were found not guilty on eight charges. A fourth officer, Francisco Vazquez, fled and is believed to have escaped to Mexico. The four were known as the Riders, a moniker they chose. The jury of eight whites, two Latinos, one Asian, one Hawaiian and no African Americans could not agree on 27 other charges, ranging from kidnapping to planting drugs on suspects.
The case stemmed from a 10-day period in the summer of 2000 in which the graveyard-shift officers made allegedly illegal arrests in the city’s tough northwest corner.
Witnesses for the prosecution included a rookie police officer and convicted drug dealers.
Frustrated by the mix of personalities, one juror who led the unsuccessful fight to convict the former officers said: “You’re embarrassed. You know this is happening to the black community. You know there are resentments against false arrests and false charges. People spend time in jail for this.” The juror, a nuclear engineer, added: “And you’re ashamed.”
John Burris, an attorney who won a nearly $11-million civil suit against the police on behalf of 119 victims, said the message is that African Americans “are not going to get justice from the various systems that are supposed to give justice: the police and the court system.”
The jurors interviewed for this story asked that their names not be used for fear of retaliation.
In interviews, jurors said anger “ratcheted up almost immediately. There was a suppressed air of hostility in the room” that reminded a librarian juror “of a pack of dogs wandering around and a couple of them get in a fight.”
The tension began almost at the start, when, by default, the jury elected the only person who wanted to be foreman, a night law school student. “Once they tried to establish ground rules, it started to go downhill,” said another juror, an arborist, who considered himself one of six jurors in the middle.
Immediately, several jurors said the foreman, the youngest member of the jury, approached the blackboard and chalked a line down the middle scrawling the word “civil” on one side and “criminal” on the other. Lecturing his fellow jurors, he talked about reasonable doubt, concluding that guilt had not been proved on any of the counts.
“We were shocked,” said one juror.
For the rest of the deliberations, the foreman remained an unyielding advocate for the former cops.
“He had adopted the cause of the defendants and was advocating for their exoneration,” the engineer said. “All his efforts were in service to that end. He was making an absolute mockery and rendering futile all our efforts.”
The jury foreman did not respond to requests for an interview.
The atmosphere grew even more tense when he was joined by an outspoken juror nicknamed “the cowboy” because he read magazines about horses, and by an unemployed woman whose anger toward fellow jurors frightened many of them. The trio was nicknamed “the three musketeers.” At various times, the woman threatened to go to the judge and provide information that would force a mistrial. Other times, the woman passively painted her nails or read Cosmopolitan magazine while other jurors discussed the evidence.
“Very close to the beginning,” said the librarian, “the three announced they didn’t believe Keith Batt,” the rookie officer and star prosecution witness. “They said everything he said was a lie and therefore the officers were set up.”
They never changed their positions, even after the jury had told the judge three times they were hopelessly deadlocked and the judge sent them back three times.
“It devolved into sort of liberal/conservative, educated/uneducated groups,” said the nuclear engineer.
There were, said the arborist, “two immovable camps.” And after a while, many jurors quit talking. The longer they debated, he said, the greater the frustration, “especially with the ladies,” he said.
“You felt like it was hopeless,” said the librarian, who felt “waves of despair.”
Several jurors said that they believed having an African American on the jury would have made a difference. “Those of us who argued that things are different in the black community had no credibility in the eyes of the conservatives,” said the nuclear engineer, one of two Oakland residents on the jury. “We know people to whom [police abuse] has happened. It’s not universal, but it’s frequent enough. But when we say it, we don’t have the credibility that a black person who lives in those neighborhoods would have.”
At one point during deliberations, a juror said, the unemployed woman drew a picture of the missing officer, Vazquez, with a sombrero, mustache and cartridge belts over his shoulders. At that point, the nuclear engineer wrote a note to the judge. “I wanted her out of there because of her disruption. Secondarily,” he said, “I knew that the alternate juror was an African American. She would have had credibility.” The unemployed woman remained.
Jurors were selected from across Alameda County, which is 14% black. More than a third of the city of Oakland is African American.
“Most of the jurors,” said Oakland Vice Mayor Nancy Nadel, probably have never been mistreated by the police “because they’re not from Oakland and they’re not African American.”
She said she was outraged by the mistrial but was not surprised.
Geoffrey Pete, co-chairman of the Oakland Black Caucus, said he believes Brown should call for a retrial. Pete characterizes the mayor’s attitude toward the African American community as one of “benign neglect.” The defense, he said, contended the police were only trying to carry out “the goals and objectives of the mayor” to cut crime by 20%.
At his Sunday service, Senior Pastor Harold R. Mayberry of the First African Methodist Episcopal Church in north Oakland said he encourages his congregation to tell the district attorney that they are unhappy with the verdicts. Along with city official Nadel and others, Mayberry said he wants church members to encourage the D.A. to order a retrial.
“We need to let the Police Department know that enough is enough,” Mayberry said. “We’re going to be vigilant in watching what they do. We want to make sure the Police Department knows that the eyes of this community will be upon them.”