Videotape no easy street to Calif. officer's conviction

Jason Newell, Staff Writer

Copyright 2006 MediaNews Group, Inc. 
Inland Valley Daily Bulletin (Ontario, CA) 
The grainy footage has shocked many, angered some and earned a recurring role on the national TV news.

But is the tape enough to make the charges stick?

Without the compelling videotape that captured a San Bernardino County sheriff's deputy shooting an unarmed Air Force senior airman, prosecutors would likely have no way to convict Ivory J. Webb Jr. of a crime, legal experts say.

Even with the tape, prosecutors have their work cut out for them --especially if past videotapes of alleged police misconduct are any indicator.

''This is going to be a very hard case to win," said USC Law School professor Charles Whitebread, an expert on police misconduct. ''Juries side with the officers in these very high-stress, split-second situations out in the street."

Webb is charged with attempted voluntary manslaughter for the Jan. 29 incident, which occurred after a brief high-speed chase ended in a residential area of Chino.

On the tape, recorded by a neighborhood resident, Webb can be seen pointing his gun at Elio Carrion, the car's passenger, who is sprawled out on the ground. The deputy apparently orders Carrion to ''get up" and then fires three times when Carrion begins to comply.

While the video may be shocking, Whitebread said, so have past videos of alleged police misconduct that ultimately ended in acquittals or hung juries.

Perhaps the best-known example is the videotaped beating of Rodney King in 1991, which provoked shock and outrage among many who believed the incident was racially motivated. When a Ventura County jury acquitted four LAPD officers for their roles in the beating, riots broke out across Los Angeles.

Two separate juries deadlocked on charges against an Inglewood police officer who was accused of using excessive force during a videotaped arrest at a gas station in 2002. Officer Jeremy Morse was shown on the tape slamming a handcuffed black teenager to the trunk of a police car and punching him in the face.

No charges were filed against an LAPD officer involved in a high-profile beating of a car-theft suspect in 2004. Prosecutors said they found insufficient evidence to charge Officer John Hatfield, who was filmed by television news helicopters striking the suspect repeatedly with a flashlight.

One problem with videotapes is they don't necessarily tell the whole story, said Loyola Law School professor Laurie Levenson.

Tapes don't show what happened before the camera started recording, what is going on off-camera or what the officer is seeing from his vantage point, she said.

Morse, for example, argued he was reacting to the teenager grabbing the officer's groin. His lower body couldn't be seen on the tape.

It typically takes more than just videotape evidence for jurors to feel comfortable deciding against an officer, Levenson said.

''They're extraordinarily reluctant to put a police officer in jail," Levenson said. ''It takes other bad-cop factors," such as lying in a police report, bragging about the incident or having a past record.

Of course, the vast majority of disputes with law enforcement don't end up on camera. Of those that do, only the most egregious tend to make it to the public spotlight, Levenson said.

In many cases, videotapes of incidents reinforce an officer's version of events.

That happened recently in Cincinnati, after a woman complained an officer was rude and disrespectful during a traffic stop. A tape from the officer's cruiser showed him addressing her as ''ma'am" and offering her a ride home because she didn't have a valid driver's license.

Police agencies are increasingly embracing using cameras in police cars. The Los Angeles Police Department, for example, is pushing to get video cameras in all of its patrol cars in order to cut back on paperwork costs but also to resolve complaints of officer misconduct.

Jason Newell can be reached by e-mail at jason.newell@dailybulletin.comor by phone at [909] 483-9338. 
March 12, 2006

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