Ted Rohrlich, Times Staff Writer December 25, 2000, Monday, Home Edition Copyright 2000 / Los Angeles Times Los Angeles Times December 25, 2000, Monday, Home Edition
(LOS ANGELES) -- Two members of the jury that convicted three Los Angeles police officers of framing gang members in the Rampart corruption scandal were sharply critical Sunday of the decision by Superior Court Judge Jacqueline Connor to overturn the convictions.
"Why call the jury in there in the first place? Why even have us there?" said one, Albert M. Mesa.
But two other jurors said they were confused on precisely the point Connor cited Friday when she threw out the first convictions in the worst scandal in LAPD history. "We were a bit confused," said juror Lucy M. Leon. "I know I was."
Interviews with these jurors and affidavits filed by others suggested that, as Connor asserted in her ruling, some jurors used irrelevant police jargon on a July 1996 crime report in determining the officers' guilt.
Connor said errors by the court and vagueness by attorneys during the trial encouraged jurors to avoid resolving the key question of the officers' guilt or innocence--whether a truck driven by a gang member actually hit two officers, as those officers and their sergeant said.
"There was no unanimous determination by the jurors that the officers were or were not hit by the truck," Connor wrote.
Most jurors believed that the officers were not struck by the truck, which contained fleeing gang members, and that the police lied in an effort to frame the gang members for assault, interviews showed.
But two jurors said that a few panelists believed that the officers had been hit by the truck.
The majority persuaded them to convict the officers anyway, by arguing that even if the officers had been hit, they falsely claimed on a police report that they had suffered "great bodily injury" when they had actually suffered minor injuries.
The reference on the police report was to the crime with which the gang members were charged--assaulting a peace officer "by any means likely to produce great bodily injury." That charge can be applied regardless of whether great bodily injury is actually inflicted.
But an abbreviation on the police report referred to assault on a police officer "with" great bodily injury. That made it seem to some jurors that the officers were claiming--in contradiction to their own testimony--to have suffered serious injuries.
Jurors had made an attempt to ask Connor to clarify this point during deliberations, but Connor brushed them off, believing, she said, that great bodily injury was irrelevant. Only later did she realize that she had made an error, because in the jury room it had assumed great relevance.
Juror Jack Wilkins was a case in point. He wrote in a sworn declaration solicited by defense attorneys that he believed the officers were innocent after listening to the testimony, but was persuaded to find them guilty of conspiracy to obstruct justice, filing a false police report and perjury because he believed they had not suffered great bodily injury. Referring to an abbreviation for this type of injury that appeared in the police report, he wrote: "The GBI was the reason I voted guilty."
Another juror, Ingrid Utke, said in another sworn declaration that jurors "did not try to conclude whether or not the truck struck the officers. . . . The issue we discussed was not whether the officers were actually hit by the vehicle, but rather whether or not the degree of injury sustained by the officers constituted great bodily injury."
Still another, Maria A. Leyba, said in an interview that she was in the majority in believing that the officers were not hit by the truck in the incident in which police raided a gang gathering in a Los Feliz alley. Therefore, the degree of injury they claimed was irrelevant to her.
But she said that jurors who believed the officers were hit "just agreed to convict because they thought they lied" about the extent of their injuries. Leyba made the same point in a sworn declaration.
She was not critical of Connor, saying the judge "knows better because she probably got the declaration of everyone else."
In overturning the Nov. 15 convictions of Sgts. Edward Ortiz and Brian Liddy and Officer Michael Buchanan, Connor wrote that she reviewed declarations that a defense investigator had gathered from five jurors and that she had telephone contact with a sixth. She said that all six were "basically consistent."
Juror Mesa was not the only one to express frustration with Connor's action.
The jury foreman, Victor Flores, said: "We had decided as jurors that the accident never happened. So, therefore, 'great bodily injury' was really irrelevant."
In a sworn declaration, he added: "I don't feel we discussed the GBI issue for more than a couple of hours."
But he said of the judge: "From the beginning, I felt she was on the defense side" by the way she tended to uphold defense objections and rebuke prosecutors.
Flores and Connor clashed after the verdict when an alternate juror said that Flores had told her at the trial's start that he believed the accused officers were guilty. Flores denied making that statement and another alternate backed him up. Connor wrote that she did not have enough information to determine the truth.
Flores said in an interview that in determining that the officers were not struck by the truck, jurors relied heavily on a videotape shot from a helicopter for a live-action television show.
He said that careful study of the video convinced him and other jurors that the accident could not have happened the way the officers said it did.
Although Flores downplayed the significance of great bodily injury as a discussion topic, juror Leon portrayed it as central.
"We believed that the officers getting hit by the truck may or may not have happened, but the injuries that they sustained were not of great bodily injury in nature," she said. Expressing some confusion, she said at first that she did not believe they were struck, then added quickly, "It may or it may not have happened."
Officer Buchanan, for example, testified he was hit by the truck and tumbled over its hood, striking his head on the windshield.
But juror Leon said she believed Buchanan may have been injured "when the truck was coming down the alley, and he either tripped and fell against the block wall or it may have been that he did get hit. Who's to say? But a lot of us felt that they fabricated that story."
Buchanan's attorney, Harland Braun, said prosecutors sowed this confusion because they never said in the charges what specifically the officers allegedly lied about.
Connor cited Braun's point in her decision. She noted that although Buchanan was charged with lying about the accident happening and about Liddy being injured, there was no allegation that he lied about the extent of Liddy's injury.
Prosecutors will study Connor's ruling over the next few weeks before deciding how best to respond, a representative for newly elected Dist. Atty. Steve Cooley said.
The district attorney's office could appeal Friday's ruling or seek a new trial. Another possibility is that the U.S. attorney's office would take over the case as part of a federal civil rights prosecution.