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Did a cop’s racist remark need to be disclosed? For a prisoner, the answer took years

June 2018 photo of Cleamon Johnson during a court appearance in Los Angeles.
Cleamon Johnson during a court appearance in Los Angeles in June 2018. Racist remarks by a detective became a flash-point in the case.
(Al Seib / Los Angeles Times)

Richard Lathan wasn’t sure how to react when he got a letter in July informing him that the Los Angeles police detective who helped put him in prison for murder had made a racist remark about Black people.

A glimmer of optimism that the revelation could win him a new trial collided with the profound anger he felt about the more than three decades he has spent in prison for a crime he says he didn’t commit. Lathan had always suspected the detective, Brian McCartin, targeted him simply because he was Black and a gang member.

And something else about the letter bothered Lathan: It said McCartin, who is now retired, made the remarks in 2014. The Los Angeles County district attorney’s office, however, didn’t notify Lathan about them until this summer — eight years after prosecutors first learned of the comments and four years after The Times published a front-page story detailing them.

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Why, he wondered, hadn’t he been told sooner?

It is a basic rule of the U.S. justice system that prosecutors must turn over to defendants evidence that could help exonerate them, including information that calls into question the credibility of police officers involved in their cases. Failure to disclose such information — called Brady material, after Brady vs. Maryland, the landmark 1963 Supreme Court ruling that established the rule — can result in a conviction being thrown out or a new appeal granted.

How this obligation is carried out, however, is less clear, as law enforcement officers often fight to keep allegations of misconduct under wraps and prosecutors serve as gatekeepers, deciding whether or not to disclose information.

At a Little Tokyo bar, drinks fueled a heated discussion among a group of lawyers and a Los Angeles police investigator.

Sometimes it is obvious when information needs to be shared, such as when an officer or deputy has a record of lying. But with McCartin, the district attorney’s office seesawed for years over what to do.

Initially, prosecutors under Dist. Atty. Jackie Lacey dismissed his comments as innocuous, saying they didn’t reflect a bias against Black people. Then George Gascón took office in 2020 and decided otherwise, finding that McCartin was among several other law enforcement officers whose conduct needed to be disclosed.

The Times contacted several officials from Lacey’s administration who probably would have been aware of McCartin’s comments, but none responded. It is unclear whether Lacey, who did not respond to a request for comment, knew of them.

Attempts to reach McCartin, who left the LAPD in June 2015, were unsuccessful.

In 2014, McCartin was drinking at a Little Tokyo bar with a group that included Deputy Dist. Atty. Robert Rabbani and Peter Arian, then a deputy federal public defender. At some point, McCartin began discussing his experience with gang members, saying something to the effect of “I was out there with those n—s,” Rabbani later recalled in a court filing. McCartin then said, “They call themselves that,” according to Rabbani.

Arian, who memorialized the incident in an email he sent to himself, wrote that McCartin used the slur while making a distinction between law-abiding Black residents and gang members.

About three weeks after the bar conversation, Rabbani alerted higher-ups in the district attorney’s office, saying that he had known McCartin for two years and had never heard the detective “express any kind of bias towards anyone.” Later, when Rabbani notified McCartin that he was looking into whether the slur needed to be disclosed to the defense, he said the detective expressed concern that doing so might cost him his job, court documents show.

Then, in 2017, the district attorney’s office notified the LAPD that McCartin had been added to its so-called Brady list, an internal accounting of officers with credibility issues, the documents show. It is unclear what spurred that decision.

The following year, McCartin’s comments became a flash point in the high-profile murder case against Cleamon Johnson, a Black gang leader known as “Big Evil” who was charged with committing five murders. McCartin had been the lead detective in the case.

Prosecutors informed Johnson’s attorney about the detective’s racist remarks. In a court filing they wrote that although they were not legally required to disclose the remarks, they were doing so “in an abundance of caution.”

By then Rabbani had stepped aside as the lead prosecutor due to health issues. His replacement, Deputy Dist. Atty. Jonathan Chung, continued to advance Rabbani’s argument: that McCartin had been referring specifically to Black gang members and that his use of the slur, “taken in proper context, does not provide circumstantial evidence that he is biased against African Americans,” according to court documents.

In the summer of 2018, The Times reported on Johnson’s murder trial. The article detailed how, during the trial, Johnson’s lawyer asserted that the detective’s comments highlighted an anti-Black bias that cast doubt on every aspect of his investigation. A judge declined to hold a hearing on the issue. Johnson was found guilty, but the conviction was later overturned on issues unrelated to McCartin.

In May this year, the judge in Johnson’s case ruled that McCartin’s remarks and prosecutors’ delay in disclosing them had been unfair to Johnson, according to the blog Death Penalty Focus. Johnson
is facing a retrial in January on the murder charges. If he is convicted again, the judge decided, he would not be subject to the death penalty or be sentenced to life in prison without the possibility of parole.

After Johnson’s first trial, Lacey’s office decided that McCartin’s comments would be disclosed to defense attorneys in any future cases involving the detective, according to Gascón. But by that time, McCartin had been retired for years, making the decision moot, Gascón said.

After Gascón was elected in 2020, he said a review of the office’s compliance with Brady disclosure rules included a revisit of McCartin’s comments. By August 2021, prosecutors concluded they needed to notify defendants of the detective’s comments in more than 200 past cases in which McCartin had been listed as a potential witness, according to Diana Teran, a special advisor to Gascón.

A spokesman for the office declined to provide a list of cases. It is not clear why it took nearly another year for Lathan to be notified.

In other recent incidents in which law enforcement officers were found to have engaged in racist conduct, prosecutors made notifications more swiftly than they did in Lathan’s case.

Last August, the district attorney’s office discovered a group of Torrance police officers had exchanged racist text messages and began alerting defense attorneys within weeks. By the end of the year, the L.A. County public defender’s office alone had received 600 letters disclosing potential misconduct by the officers. More than 100 cases involving the officers have already been thrown out, records show.

The Times has identified a dozen Torrance police officers who are under investigation for sharing racist and homophobic text messages and images.

In another Los Angeles case, a former LAPD detective was caught on video shouting racial slurs at a young Black man during an argument after a traffic collision. The incident, which was reported by ABC 7, prompted a review by the district attorney’s office of 370 cases handled by the unnamed detective, who retired from Central Bureau Homicide in May 2020.

A review by The Times of court cases of other people McCartin had helped convict showed that defense attorneys echoed Johnson’s attorney, arguing the detective’s comments raised serious questions about his handling of investigations involving Black defendants.

One case involved a man named Anthony Bryce Jones, who was convicted of a 2013 rape and murder.

Jones’ trial occurred after McCartin’s comments had been made public in the Times article and his defense attorney argued McCartin’s words called into question the credibility of his entire investigation. Jones’ lawyer raised the possibility that McCartin may have planted Jones’ DNA on the jeans the victim was wearing.

An L.A. County judge made it harder for prosecutors to disclose evidence against Torrance police officers implicated in a racist text message scandal.

The prosecutor in the case argued against a request from Jones’ lawyers that the judge force the district attorney’s office to turn over the detective’s personnel records. He maintained that even if McCartin had uttered the comments, he did so during what amounted to “some heated discussion amongst the individuals.”

“If the detective did use such a word, it may have been due to the group’s drinking and the heated nature of the conversation and not necessarily reflect any actual [bias],” the prosecutor wrote.

Robert Weisberg, a professor of law at Stanford University and co-director of the school’s criminal justice center, said that it’s unlikely McCartin’s comments would lead to a wave of convictions being overturned.

Although the prosecutors’ failure to make defendants aware of his comments in 2014 was “unethical,” defendants would have grounds to seek a new trial or file an appeal only in particular cases, Weisberg said, including those in which McCartin was the lead investigator and could have influenced a witness’ identification of a Black suspect. This would include Lathan’s case.

Arian, the former public defender who overheard McCartin at the bar, said that the detective’s comments were a reminder of the racist image the LAPD is trying to shed, while adding that the episode also underscored the wide discretion that prosecutors often have in making decisions about Brady disclosures and the role they can play in shielding bad police behavior.

“The way prosecutors work with the Brady standard is they claim that they understand or they can make a ruling on themselves, they can police themselves about what’s material and what’s not.... Sorry, that’s the fox guarding the henhouse. Law enforcement is competitive, these prosecutors want to win,” he said.

Greg Totten, executive director of the California District Attorneys Assn. and Ventura County’s former top prosecutor, pushed back on the idea that prosecutors would hide exculpatory information, noting the risks are too great to both the individual attorney and the overall health of the case they’re trying.

“Part of the job of a prosecutor is to protect the defendant, believe it or not … if [a prosecutor] fails to disclose it, it not only jeopardizes the case, it might jeopardize their ability to practice law.”

Although he declined to comment specifically on Lathan’s case, Totten said he worked closely with Lacey during her tenure and described her as “incredibly responsible and diligent on Brady.”

In an interview from prison, Lathan said he felt some optimism when he got the D.A.'s letter, although he recognized that it didn’t guarantee him the right to a new trial or other leniency.

“Yes, it gave me a lot of hope when I read the whole thing,” he said, speaking by phone from a state prison in Chino, where he was transferred this summer after years at San Quentin. He said he plans to ask the district attorney’s office to review his case.

He said he was not at the Pueblo del Rio housing projects in South L.A. on July 25, 1991, when two men in ski masks opened fire on two people in a car, wounding them.

Veronica Perez, who was inside a nearby house, was killed when a bullet flew into the home, according to prosecutors. Lathan was arrested a few months later and, after a trial in which McCartin and his detective partner testified, was found guilty and sentenced to 15 years to life in prison.

Lathan said that in 2017, when he was eligible for parole, he was desperate to be released from prison, and so he lied to a parole board, telling them that he had committed the murder.

He did so, he said, “with the assumption that I would accept responsibility and be sent home.”

“Look, I committed all these other crimes, and they’re making me pay for this crime that I didn’t commit, so I accepted responsibility,” he said, recalling his rationale for admitting the killing.

In 2017, he was featured in an episode of “Ear Hustle,” a well-known podcast about prison life, discussing how he’d earned several degrees behind bars and was working as a so-called “Gold Coat,” helping fellow prisoners who have some form of physical or mental disability.

Lathan is next scheduled to appear in front of the parole board in November.

He said he has let go of some of the anger he once felt toward McCartin, who he maintains whispered to him during his trial, “I know you didn’t do it.”

“Hating somebody has never accomplished anything. All it’s going to do is open up old wounds. And I want to live,” he said. “Bitterness will bore holes in you and I’m not trying to have none of that — because you can die several ways in here.”


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