A 40-year-old Los Angeles police officer charged with lying under oath during his testimony in a drug possession case five years ago was convicted Thursday at his retrial.
Manuel Ortiz was first put on trial in 2012 along with two former Los Angeles police officers accused of writing false reports and perjury. Prosecutors said that a grainy black-and-white surveillance video — that ended up leading to the drug case's dismissal — contradicted what they said on the stand.
Evan Samuel and Richard Amio were convicted and sentenced to community labor and probation, but the jury was hung 11 to 1 in favor of guilt when it came to Ortiz.
This time, a panel of six women and six men found Ortiz guilty of perjury and conspiracy to obstruct justice.
His attorney, Bill Seki, said he was disappointed and surprised by the verdict that followed the weeklong trial. "I stand by the fact that Mr. Ortiz was unaware of what was contained in the report and unaware of the testimony of the other officers," he said.
Ortiz, Amio and Samuel were among a group of Hollywood Division gang officers who followed Guillermo Alarcon Jr. into the carport of an apartment complex and arrested him on suspicion of drug possession.
Ortiz testified during a preliminary hearing that he did not help search for the drugs. His daily field activity report that day would later reveal that he had written "assisted in locating evidence."
At Alarcon's 2008 trial, Amio and Samuel testified that Alarcon ran away when they approached and threw a small black box that broke open to reveal rock and powder cocaine. They said they recovered the drugs immediately. The charges rested almost entirely on their word.
The trial ended abruptly when a defense attorney produced the video that showed the drug search took more than 20 minutes and that it was Ortiz who discovered the black key box stuffed with cocaine.
"Be creative in your writing," one officer tells another.
"Oh yeah, don't worry, sin duda [no doubt]."
Officers laugh and then someone else says, "Come on, this is a man who put a case on somebody who has no dope. And he's doing time … two years."
Prosecutors acknowledged the footage was inconsistent with Samuel and Amio's testimony and the charges against Alarcon were dismissed. The two officers were later found guilty of one count of conspiracy each and multiple counts of perjury.
Ortiz's attorney called his client's retrial a case about "a pawn in a game of words" and said the real tragedy was that a drug dealer walked free.
"It's not like drugs were planted on him," Seki said Tuesday in court about Alarcon. "They weren't put on his body. Those were his drugs."
He reminded jurors about witnesses who attested that Ortiz was "someone who will go the extra yard when he knows something's wrong."
Seki pinned the blame on Amio and Samuel.
"They're the ones who created that conspiracy," he said. "An innocent bystander was swept in."
But Deputy Dist. Atty. Geoffrey Rendon drew the jury's attention to a moment in the video when officers react to Ortiz finding the cocaine.
"Manny Ortiz!" someone says.
"Where was it at, Mac dawg?" comes another voice.
"They're excited because he's a hero that day," Rendon said Tuesday in his closing statement.
He said Ortiz had committed "just about the worst crime."
"They had a choice and they chose to lie," Rendon said. "They chose to manipulate the system. It is tough for a prosecutor to stand up here and talk about a case where police officers lie because of what it does to our system, because of the shadow that it casts."
Ortiz, who joined the force about 2000, has been on administrative leave. He could face up to three years and eight months behind bars. His sentencing is scheduled for April 9.