Prosecutors begin dismissing felony cases involving LAPD officers accused in gang-framing scandal
Prosecutors have begun dismissing felony cases that relied on the work of Los Angeles police officers charged this summer with falsifying records and obstructing justice by claiming without evidence that people they stopped were gang members.
So far, at least seven cases have been dismissed or recommended for dismissal and another seven are being scrutinized for potential dismissal, according to the L.A. County district attorney’s office. Hundreds of additional cases are under review by prosecutors after the corruption allegations sparked questions about the legitimacy of the officers’ past police work.
The dismissals provide fresh insight into the types of cases that are now vulnerable. In five of the seven cases, defendants had been charged with possession of a firearm by a felon.
In a recently dismissed case, two of the accused LAPD officers — Braxton Shaw and Michael Coblentz — insisted the man they arrested in November 2016 was a gang member.
They had repeatedly questioned Wesly Williams about his connections with the 84 Swan Blood gang and his alleged moniker, though he denied any affiliation, court records show. Shaw later wrote in the arrest report that Williams was a “self-admitted” member of the gang, which had been involved in a feud at the time.
As they approached Williams in their squad car on 84th Street in South L.A., the officers said they saw him reach into his waistband and toss a revolver into a car he was standing near. They said a witness, whom they also identified as a gang member, confirmed their account.
Williams denied the officers’ version of events and said he was actually standing across the street talking with a group of men and did not have a gun, according to a motion filed by his defense attorney.
But fearing conviction and a prison sentence if he fought a case that pitted his word against the word of two officers, Williams decided the following year to take a deal instead — changing his “not guilty” plea to one of “no contest” to the gun charge in exchange for three years’ probation.
As a result, Williams, now 31, said he lost his job as a traveling electrician and became homeless before finding a place to live in Riverside. He had nearly completed the probation when his case was thrown out on Aug. 19.
“I live my life every day knowing how powerful local law enforcement is,” Williams said in an interview with The Times. While he was relieved to have his case wiped clean and his probation fees refunded, it’s little consolation, he said.
“To be honest, I wasn’t elated because I knew from day one I didn’t have anything to do with having a firearm. I’m glad these officers are facing accountability, but there is a larger issue of racial discrimination by the LAPD and I hope it is addressed one day.”
According to a statement from the district attorney’s office, the case against Williams “relied on the credibility of Officers Coblentz and Shaw and without additional evidence, prosecutors lost faith that a jury could find the defendant guilty beyond a reasonable doubt.”
The D.A.’s office provided similar statements for two other recently dismissed cases involving the accused officers.
For weeks, L.A. County Dist. Atty. Jackie Lacey has said her office intends to seek remedies for those whose convictions or arrests by the charged officers are now suspect.
On Wednesday, Lacey’s office said prosecutors in recent weeks had zeroed in on cases in which Shaw and Coblentz were the “sole percipient witnesses.”
They vacated pleas and dismissed charges against two defendants. Another case was dismissed after a motion was filed to withdraw a plea, and motions to vacate pleas and dismiss charges are pending in two additional cases, Lacey’s office said.
The county public defender’s office had previously identified two additional cases that had been dismissed, which Lacey’s office also confirmed.
In addition to those seven cases, Lacey’s office said its prosecutors are reviewing another seven cases.
Her office also said charges had been dismissed against three additional defendants whose cases were not adjudicated. However, court records showed that all three had been dismissed in 2016 and 2017, before the latest allegations against the officers were known.
The Times previously reported on one of those — a 2017 felony case in which prosecutors made a disclosure to a defense attorney about Shaw. In that case, Shaw testified at a preliminary hearing and the judge dismissed the case the same day based on insufficient evidence.
Lacey’s office did not respond when asked to clarify why it had included the three cases in its list of recently dismissed cases, or whether they had been dismissed based on earlier concerns about the officers’ integrity.
Her office charged Shaw, Coblentz and Nicolas Martinez last month, alleging they wrote on field cards that people had admitted to being gang members when body-camera footage showed no such admissions or showed the individuals had explicitly denied gang affiliation. Shaw is accused of falsifying 43 cards, Coblentz of falsifying seven and Martinez of falsifying two.
However, Lacey’s review goes far beyond those incidents, to include felony cases from the start of the officers’ careers. For Shaw, that is 206 cases involving 256 defendants since February 2009, according to district attorney records obtained by The Times. For Coblentz, that is 296 cases involving 345 defendants since July 2002. For Martinez, that is 122 cases involving 157 defendants since September 2010.
Lacey’s office said it was sending letters to more than 750 defendants and their attorneys in total, in cases that listed one or more of the charged officers as potential witnesses, urging them to contact her office if they felt the officers’ involvement was prejudicial to their case.
Prosecutors are analyzing pending cases to determine whether they can move forward on evidence other than the testimony of the charged officers or should be dropped, and reviewing past cases and convictions — including those like Williams’ that were based on plea deals — to see if they also should be reopened or dismissed.
The abrupt turnaround in cases linked to the charged officers reflects an acknowledgement among prosecutors that an officer’s alleged misdeeds in one case can hold relevance in their other cases.
It is not something always conceded by officials. Often, city attorneys object to the notion — and did so in Williams’ case when it first came before the courts.
Prior to Williams accepting the plea deal, his public defender had filed a motion in court asking a judge to have the LAPD turn over past misconduct complaints against Shaw and Coblentz. The filing said a prosecutor informed the defense that Shaw’s “personnel file does contain impeachment information.”
Shaw’s credibility had come into question in 2015 when a prosecutor discovered video from an LAPD patrol car that contradicted testimony Shaw gave about a weapons arrest. The next year, a judge tossed out an unrelated firearm case after prosecutors disclosed their investigation of Shaw.
Nina Poladian, Williams’ public defender, argued in a court filing that the impeachment information in Shaw’s file would be used by the defense to locate witnesses to testify that the officer had engaged in misconduct similar to what Williams was also alleging.
The case against Williams “relied on the credibility of Officers Coblentz and Shaw and without additional evidence prosecutors lost faith that a jury could find the defendant guilty beyond a reasonable doubt.”
— L.A. County District Attorney’s office
City Atty. Mike Feuer’s office, which represents the police department in legal matters, fought the release of the records.
In an opposing motion, Deputy City Atty. Stephen Cohen argued that there “appears to be no dishonesty on the part of the officers concerning the defendant’s alleged gang membership, even if they are wrong, because of the basis of their opinions substantiated by qualified gang experts working for the police department.”
Cohen dismissed outright Williams’ claims that the officers had been dishonest about him self-identifying as a gang member and having a gun, calling them “a mere denial of the officers’ observations.”
In a recent interview, Poladian said she fully believed Williams’ account and recalled that he was working as an electrician and didn’t have any tattoos or a case history that would suggest he was a gang member.
“Yes, he did have a prior record, but he was really working hard to change everything around,” said Poladian, a 12-year veteran with the public defender’s office. “No matter how much we try to explain this to judges, it’s so hard for us to convince them that our clients may be telling the truth and law enforcement is not.”
How many cases linked to Shaw, Coblentz and Martinez will be dismissed is unclear. Whether additional officers will be charged, thus expanding the review of cases, also remains unknown.
The three officers are among more than 20 members of the vaunted LAPD Metropolitan Division under investigation amid suspicions that officers falsified field interview cards from traffic stops and entered incorrect information in an effort to boost stop statistics.
The officers handled a range of cases, up to and including homicides.
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