The video is grainy, black and white and of poor quality. But it is the key evidence in a perjury and conspiracy trial of three current and former Los Angeles police officers accused of lying under oath four years ago about a drug arrest.
Jurors in a downtown courtroom Friday watched the security camera recording, which prosecutors said contradicts police testimony about how long it took the officers to find a small box containing cocaine. It also captured what prosecutors contend was a revealing conversation among officers after the discovery.
“Be creative in your writing,” one officer appears to say, in an apparent reference to the arrest report that needed to be written.
“Oh yeah, don’t worry, sin duda [no doubt],” another officer replies.
As the trial began, a prosecutor told jurors that the officers lied in order to “railroad” Guillermo Alarcon Jr., whom they arrested on drug charges. The officers’ actions, Deputy Dist. Atty. Geoffrey Rendon said, “shake our faith in the criminal justice system.”
The video took center stage Friday. Jurors leaned forward intently while the defendants — LAPD Officers Richard Amio and Manuel Ortiz and former Officer Evan Samuel — sat impassively in front of them as the prosecutor paused the video at key moments and interpreted it.
Amio and Samuel testified in 2008 that while on patrol the previous year, they recognized Alarcon, a suspected gang member, in front of his East Hollywood apartment. When Alarcon fled, the officers testified, they chased him into the building’s carport. There, they testified, they saw him throw a black box toward a trash bin.
“As it hit the Dumpster, I observed that once it landed on the floor it cracked open,” Amio told jurors four years ago. The officers said Samuel immediately picked up the box, which contained 12 bindles of powder cocaine and two rocks of crack cocaine.
But in the video, officers searched for more than 20 minutes before finding an object that prosecutors contend contained the cocaine. According to the video, officers credited “Manny” with finding the object. That would appear to contradict Ortiz’s testimony at an earlier court hearing in which he said he did not assist Samuel and Amio in the search for the drugs.
“Every important factor you’d want to know if a defendant is guilty, they lied about,” Rendon told jurors.
But defense attorneys for the three officers say the video tells only part of the story.
Defense attorney Robert R. Rico, who represents Amio, said in his opening statement that the officers found the drugs exactly as they described in court and that the video shows only conduct after the recovery of the evidence. He said that the officers were looking for more drugs or possibly a firearm and that the object found in the video was a broken-off piece of the container recovered earlier.
“Do you start your book with Chapter 2, Chapter 3?” Rico asked jurors.
But the video appears to show officers talking after the prolonged search about trying to open the object and then later saying it contains cocaine.
In 2008, Alarcon’s public defender played the grainy video in a dramatic court scene, leading Los Angeles County Superior Court Judge Monica Bachner to dismiss the charges against Alarcon and declare him factually innocent.
The trial is expected to continue Monday.