By On the occasion of our 20th anniversary
By Gustavo Arellano
By R. Scott Moxley
By Alfonso Delgado
By Courtney Hamilton
By Joel Beers
By Peter Maguire
By Charles Lam
The horrific video recordings of Fullerton police beating Kelly Thomas to death in 2011 prompted some observers to believe the prosecution's case against the three charged cops was a slam-dunk. After all, an unarmed Thomas screamed, "Help me God" 26 times while being battered beyond recognition, and then fell eternally silent. When a December jury sanctioned the killing as lawful cop conduct, residents launched anti-police- brutality protests.
But there was nothing surprising about the Orange County jury's verdicts for Manuel Ramos and Jay Cicinelli. Government uniforms and badges routinely blind our jurors—and not just white, middle- or upper-class housewives and grandpas. In case after case involving questionable law-enforcement actions, juries refuse to believe police officers can lie or use excessive force.
That point was inadvertently underscored during a trial last week inside the Ronald Reagan Federal Courthouse in Santa Ana. Three Latino cops are suing the Westminster Police Department for alleged illegal racial discrimination in promotions. The plaintiffs claim white police chiefs have handed white cops special-detective assignments that make it easier to win coveted sergeant slots. In comparison, the Latino officers say, they've been given "a path to nowhere": Westminster Mall patrol.
Plaintiffs Jose Flores, Ryan Reyes and Brian Perez assert they've often been the most overlooked but qualified candidates for promotion while enduring racial slurs. Meanwhile, junior white cops they trained won promotions and better assignments, according to Bernard Alexander, who represents the complaining officers. Using charts and statistics, Alexander told jurors that misconduct by white officers had been downplayed, but Latino cops faced nitpicking internal-affairs probes.
Attacking the plaintiff's case, Westminster PD lawyer Melanie M. Poturica released previously unknown information that's almost always shielded from public consumption by California's nefarious Peace Officers' Bill of Rights. Poturica said in her opening statement that a white officer, Jason Stouffer, had been sternly reprimanded for using excessive force during a November 2007 Bolsa Avenue incident. Then-police Chief Andrew Hall suspended Stouffer for 120 hours of pay in the aftermath of the beating of a handcuffed Sonny Rubin, who suffered a broken wrist and facial fractures. According to video evidence, officers also held down Rubin and fired a Taser blast into his groin. Claiming Stouffer and other cops violated his constitutional rights, Rubin sued in federal court.
You might guess that if an officer's conduct outraged a police chief and caused miserly city officials to offer a $101,000 pretrial settlement, a jury—the supposedly neutral group tasked with delivering justice—might also show a modicum of alarm, even in Orange County. To convict defendants in criminal trials, a prosecutor must prove the case beyond a reasonable doubt. In civil trials, the plaintiff's burden is an easier preponderance of the evidence standard.
Nonetheless, members of the citizens' panel in the Rubin lawsuit couldn't find any evidence of excessive force, and a federal judge, Cormac J. Carney, ordered the victim to pay the police department's legal bills. According to Poturica, the verdict prompted Hall to change his earlier expert opinion. He deleted the reprimand from Stouffer's employee file and reimbursed him for the suspended pay.
This county's cop-fawning, jury-nullification history should delight Anthony Duong Donner, the FBI-arrested Westminster cop who is accused of serving as the enforcer in a Little Saigon loan-sharking operation. While on duty, Donner made threatening phone calls to victims and blasted his patrol-car sirens outside of his victims' businesses in a scheme to win politically connected, Garden Grove businessman Kevin Khanh Tuan Do exorbitant interest rates on loans, according to an FBI report. Do is alleged to have returned the favor by providing Donner free housing in Fountain Valley. The two men are scheduled to face trial later this year.
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PROSECUTOR CAUGHT CHEATING
We recently reported on the intense battle between Assistant Public Defender Scott Sanders and members of the district attorney's homicide unit over prosecutors' alleged "outrageous government conduct." According to Sanders, the prosecutors are running an illegal jailhouse program designed to secretly circumvent the constitutional rights of charged criminal defendants from self-incrimination and hiding exculpatory evidence (see "OCDA Says You Have the Right to Self-Incrimination," Feb. 20). Dan Wagner—chief of the homicide unit, the man prosecuting Seal Beach mass killer Scott Dekraai and the main target of Sanders' complaint—denies any wrongdoing, a claim under review by Superior Court Judge Thomas M. Goethals.
Now, evidence in a Placentia child-abuse case has emerged that another prosecutor, Deputy District Attorney Sandra Nassar, knowingly withheld exculpatory evidence to hamper the defense and win a 12-year prison sentence against the defendant. Nassar—the daughter of a businessman who sold Orange County Sheriff's Department badges in exchange for campaign contributions to Mike Carona—refused to provide the document to defense lawyer Joseph Dane, claiming she assumed he had obtained the exculpatory information on his own. Incredibly, she also tried to justify the ethical lapse by saying her move was part of her "trial strategy."
Goethals, a seasoned former defense lawyer and prosecutor, was not amused. He labeled the record-hiding "malpractice." Veteran City News Service reporter Paul Anderson, who covered the case in-depth, secured the money quotes of the judge lambasting Nassar.
"The excuse that she gave for not giving up this obviously exculpatory material was not a reasonable excuse," Goethals said. "It wasn't even close to a reasonable excuse. . . . I don't know if Miss Nassar doesn't know what the law is. That's no excuse. Ignorance of the law for an experienced prosecutor for engaging in misconduct is not a reasonable excuse either. That was a willful violation."