LOS ANGELES — Three of four police officers accused of framing gang members were convicted Wednesday of conspiracy and other crimes in the first trial involving allegations of widespread misconduct in a Police Department anti-gang unit.
The verdicts bolstered an ongoing probe of a police force struggling with demands for reform against a backdrop of mounting liability in lawsuits by victims of corruption.
The Superior Court jury found Sgts. Brian Liddy and Edward Ortiz and Officer Michael Buchanan guilty of conspiracy but acquitted Officer Paul Harper.
“There’s good cops and there’s bad cops,” jury foreman Victor Flores, 30, said outside court. “A lot of us on the jury felt that they just didn’t happen to cover themselves enough and they never thought it would come back to haunt them.”
Ortiz, 44, said he was baffled.
“I still believe to this day that we are innocent and that we did our job to keep the citizens of L.A., keep the streets safe from all the gangs and all the crime that’s going on out there,” he said.
District Attorney Gil Garcetti, just defeated in a re-election bid, was jubilant.
“The issues in this case go to the very heart of the criminal justice system. We must be able to depend on the honesty of all police officers,” said Garcetti, who was fiercely criticized when his prosecutors lost the O.J. Simpson murder case.
The defense immediately said it will seek a retrial, claiming months of allegations of wrongdoing at the Police Department’s Rampart station prejudiced the jury.
“There’s been so much publicity about the Rampart scandal the jury might be afraid if they came in with all not guiltys, people would think it was the O.J. jury,” said attorney Harland Braun, who represented Buchanan.
Barry Levin, representing Ortiz, said he should have tried to move the case out of Los Angeles.
“I was defending an officer that had already been found guilty in the minds of, not only these jurors, but the public,” Levin said.
The jury acquitted Harper, 33, altogether and returned mixed verdicts on other counts. The convicted officers face one to four years in prison. Sentencing was set for Jan. 16.
Liddy, 39, was convicted of one count of filing a false police report but acquitted of two other counts. Ortiz was acquitted of filing a false report on one incident but convicted of filing a false report on another.
In addition to conspiracy, Buchanan, 30, was convicted of two perjury counts involving his claim that he was hit by a truck driven by a gang member trying to escape down an alley. Liddy’s convictions included that incident.
The four officers sat stone still facing straight ahead as the verdicts were read. Their families, who filled two rows of the courtroom, showed no emotion. One of the women told others when the proceeding began: “Remember, no crying.”
The trial was the first to take on the divisive issue of police corruption after a yearlong scandal triggered by disgraced ex-officer Rafael Perez as he bargained to save himself by fingering others after he was found to have stolen cocaine from an evidence room.
Perez claimed that officers in the Rampart anti-gang squad known as CRASH had framed gang members, planted evidence, testified falsely and shot innocent victims.
The seven-woman, five-man jury – a racially mixed panel –spent 18 hours over four days talking about the charges.
The verdicts showed the jurors did not believe the testimony of Liddy and Buchanan about the alley confrontation.
The jurors accepted Liddy’s story of an incident at a gang meeting in a parking lot in which he said a gang member ran, discarded a weapon, raised his arms and said, “Don’t shoot, I ain’t got no gun.” Liddy was acquitted of filing a false report and perjury.
Both the alley and parking lot incidents were detailed in the conspiracy count.
The convictions, while not total, were a victory for prosecutors working under Garcetti, who had been widely criticized for filing the case because it was so thin on evidence.
The Rampart probe had forced county prosecutors who had relied on officers’ testimony in gang trials to go back to court to seek dismissal of criminal convictions tainted by allegations of police misconduct. When the dismissals topped 100, officials estimated that settlements involving those cases would likely cost the city $125 million.
The verdicts will impact the civil suits, according to a lawyer for Javier Ovando, paralyzed victim of a police shooting that will be the basis of another Rampart trial.
“The city needs to come to the table quickly with a realistic offer. The ante is going up,” said attorney Danilo Becerra. “Up to now the offers they have made are unrealistic.”
Perez had been slated as the star witness against the four officers, but his own credibility problems were exacerbated on the eve of trial when an ex-girlfriend accused him of involvement in three murders.
Authorities rushed to Tijuana, Mexico, to investigate her story of bodies buried there. None were found, but Perez demanded immunity from the allegation if he was to testify; the prosecution refused and did not call Perez. After the case went to the jury, the woman said she made up the story because she had been jilted.
In the meantime the prosecution had relied on gang members with questionable credibility and police officers afflicted with memory problems who were accused of practicing a “code of silence” to protect their colleagues.
The defendants took the witness stand and vowed they had done nothing wrong.
The incidents that put the officers on trial occurred in 1996 in the Rampart area, a tough, gang-plagued area west of downtown.
Gang members who pleaded guilty in those cases had their convictions reversed before the officers’ trial.
During the trial the judge acquitted Buchanan of two charges on grounds there was insufficient evidence to prove prosecutors’ claims that he was actually on vacation during a gang raid on which he filed a police report.
A former partner of Perez is awaiting trial in the next Rampart case. Suspended Officer Nino Durden is accused of shooting Ovando after he was handcuffed. Durden has pleaded innocent to attempted murder.