LAPD convictions threatened by jury allegations

The Associated Press
Saturday November 18, 2000

LOS ANGELES — The convictions of three officers in the Rampart police corruption trial were placed in jeopardy Friday when an alternate juror came forward to accuse the jury foreman of prejudging the defendants’ guilt before testimony was heard. 

The foreman and another voting member of the jury quickly disputed her allegations and said they stand behind the verdicts. 

The judge ordered more testimony on the issue and defense attorneys said there was a likelihood the first convictions to result from the Rampart scandal will be overturned. 

Alternate juror Wendy Christiansen, 30, who did not participate in deliberations, dropped a bombshell when she told Superior Court Judge Jacqueline Connor that the man who became jury foreman declared the defendants guilty at the outset of the trial. 

She said that throughout the trial other jurors openly stated they thought the prosecution’s police witnesses were lying when they said they didn’t remember things. And jurors often expressed their dislike for three of the defense attorneys, she said. 

“The very first day we were selected I had lunch with one alternate and juror number three,” she said, referring to Victor Flores, who would be chosen as jury foreman. 

“A comment was made that he believed the defendants were guilty,” she said. 

After that, she said, “Every time we’d come back from being out here (in the courtroom), there were a lot of comments being made about the defense  

attorneys. They didn’t like the defense attorneys. The  

person they did like was  

(Joel) Isaacson.” 

Isaacson’s client, Officer Paul Harper, was acquitted of all charges. 

Jury foreman Flores told KNBC-TV on Friday that he “absolutely” stood by the verdicts and denied concluding the officers were guilty before deliberations. 

“No, I did not say that, that wouldn’t be something I’d even utter, because the law says they’re innocent until proven guilty,” Flores said. 

Ingrid Utke, another voting member of the jury, told The Associated Press that jurors acted appropriately during breaks. 

“We pointedly made sure we never talked about the case,” Utke said. “If someone veered toward that, we’d say, ’Anyone see a movie lately?’ so we wouldn’t talk about it.” 

Utke said she personally found defense attorneys Harland Braun and Barry Levin occasionally condescending. Isaacson, however, was jovial, while defense attorney Paul DePasquale was “respectful and professional.” 

She said their behavior, however, did not influence the jury’s deliberations, because they stuck to reviewing their instructions and the evidence. 

“Whether they like me or not I could care less,” said Levn, who represents Ortiz. “But whether you like an attorney or not you can’t take it out on the client. ... The crux of the judicial system is you’re entitled to 12 unbiased jurors.” 

On Wednesday the jury of seven women and five men convicted Sgt. Brian Liddy, Sgt. Edward Ortiz and Officer Michael Buchanan of conspiracy and other crimes involving the framing of gang members four years ago. 

They were the first members of the now-defunct Rampart station’s gang fighting unit to be tried on charges based on the allegations of ex-Officer Rafael Perez, who traded information for a lenient sentence for stealing cocaine from an evidence locker. 

More than 100 criminal convictions tainted by misconduct have been dismissed. 

Braun said that if the three convicted officers win a new trial, he would file a motion to move it out of central Los Angeles. 

“I question whether as an LAPD officer you can get a fair trial in Los Angeles,” he said. “The jurors come in with an agenda.” 

Braun and Levin said the juror’s statement of a belief in the defendants’ guilt along with discussions of testimony outside court are sufficient to warrant a new trial. 

Jurors were questioned at length during jury selection and on written questionnaires about whether they had preconceived views and all said they were unbiased. Each day, the judge instructed them not to discuss the case with each other until deliberations and then only in their deliberation room. 

The judge ordered the foreman and the other alternate identified by Christiansen to testify Nov. 22. 

Ortiz told reporters: “I was not corrupted. I gave my heart and soul to this city. ... Listening to this juror, I don’t believe we got a fair trial.” 

The judge asked Christiansen not to discuss the case outside court. The alternate, who had a vacation scheduled, asked if she was free to leave the country Saturday. 

“Yes,” said the judge. “We may want to come with you.”