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Los Angeles Jury Convicts Three Police Officers in Corruption Trial

Aired November 15, 2000 - 2:18 p.m. ET


NATALIE ALLEN, CNN ANCHOR: Most of us continue to watch the goings on in Florida, but the people in L.A. are now focusing on a superior courtroom there for the outcome, the verdict expected shortly of an ongoing trial regarding four LAPD officers accused of framing innocent people.

CNN's Charles Feldman has been covering this case. And as we look at pictures live from the courtroom, he can tell us who's on trial and more specifics about it -- Charles.

CHARLES FELDMAN, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Natalie, Lou, what you're looking at, as you said, are the -- some of the defendants in the courtroom. This is the very first trial stemming from the mammoth Los Angeles County police -- Los Angeles Police Department corruption probe. And because it's the first trial, it's considered to be very symbolic.

By that I mean this: If prosecutors able to get a conviction, it is felt here in Los Angeles, they will move ahead with perhaps more indictments against other police officers suspected of corruption. If, on the other hand, the jury in this case acquits the officers, then it is widely viewed here as being problematic for prosecutors to proceed.

The officers on trial in this case are accused of a variety of offenses, from planting a gun on one reputed gang member to conspiring to falsely arrest two other gang members for allegedly assaulting them. It is, in the view of prosecutors, just the tip of the iceberg. They believe that many more Los Angeles Police Departments -- Police Department officers working out of the department's now-defunct CRASH unit, which was a special anti-crime, anti-drug unit. It is believed that many officers there may have engaged in similar activity. Thus far, more than 100 convictions have been overturned because of this corruption probe. Some 70 police officers are under investigation. Only last week, the -- let's listen to the verdict now.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: ... not guilty. Next will be Michael Buchanan. So we've got two guilty verdicts, one acquittal. Find him guilty. So Ortiz, Liddy and Buchanan found guilty of conspiracy, Harper acquitted.

Right now, you see Officer Harper on camera.

Now, they're reading another count.

Count 2 has to do wit a false police report involving a gang member. They supposedly found a gun on him. They said that Sergeant Ortiz was not guilty on that.

Liddy not guilty on the same count. That was April 1996 incident in which the gentleman by the name of Allen Clever Lopez (ph) supposedly had a gun pointed at (UNINTELLIGIBLE). Now, we're reading...

Not -- Harper is not guilty of perjury in the same incident. He...

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: We the jury in the above entitled action find the defendant Brian Liddy not guilty of perjury (UNINTELLIGIBLE)...

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Liddy found not guilty of perjury in the same incident.

Now we're moving onto counts involving a separate incident. Let's listen.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: We the jury in the above entitled action find the defendant, Edward Ortiz, guilty of filing a false police report...

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Ortiz guilty on filing a false police report in the July 1996 incident.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: We the jury in the above entitled action find the defendant Brian Liddy guilty of filing a false police report...

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Guilty Liddy, same -- same police -- same false police report, same incident.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: (OFF-MIKE) November 2000. We the jury in the above entitled action find the defendant, Michael Buchanan, guilty of perjury by (UNINTELLIGIBLE) in violation of (UNINTELLIGIBLE), a felony as charged in count 6 of the (UNINTELLIGIBLE) the 15th day of November 2000...

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Guilty. Perjury, guilty. Verdict against Buchanan. Now there's a last count here.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: ... in the above entitled action find the defendant, Michael Buchanan, guilty of perjury...

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Buchanan found guilty on the seventh count as well.

OK, so -- so what we have is we have a mixed bag here. We have some of the officers found guilty and some not guilty on several of these -- on many of these counts. So it's unclear, Tony, what -- what signal this sends except that it's somewhat of a surprise to some court watchers that any of them were found guilty of anything.

FELDMAN: So there we have what appears to oddly enough echo the presidential election, which is a somewhat confusing and mixed verdict here. And so the signals being sent from this courtroom not exactly clear this afternoon.

What we have is we have some of the officers found guilty of some of the charges against them and some of the officers found not guilty on some of the charges. And as I said earlier, it was widely viewed here in Los Angeles that one way or the other either an all-guilty verdict or a total acquittal, would lead to either further indictments against other officers or no further indictments.

So it's going to take, I suspect, some time now for prosecutors to more closely examine the results of this first trial to see whether or not the jury was sending a signal about the strength of the evidence. But again, what we have is some of the officers have been found guilty, some acquitted on some of the charges in this very first trial stemming from the Los Angeles Police Department corruption probe.

Natalie, Lou.

ALLEN: And all of this, Charles, didn't come about because one officer, who entered a plea agreement and told these alleged abuses by officers?

FELDMAN: Exactly right. This all comes, this trial and all the other accusations stems from a former police officer named Rafael Perez. He has turned state witness, but he was supposed to be the key witness in this case, except at the very last minute a former girlfriend surfaced. She told authorities, alleged that Perez had committed three homicides and buried some bodies in Mexico. And because of that, prosecutors decided that Perez was not going to be a good witness and so they did not call him to the stand in this case.

Whether or not that hurt on some of the charges where the officers were acquitted, only time will tell. But it is an interesting and a mixed verdict.

ALLEN: Charles Feldman, our correspondent who's been following the case and reporting on it quite extensively. Thank you, Charles.

Let's talk with our legal analyst Roger Cossack, who has also followed this case. What's your reaction to this mixed verdict in the L.A. courtroom, Roger?

ROGER COSSACK, CNN LEGAL ANALYST: Natalie, let me tell you that it's very difficult to get guilty -- get guilty verdicts against police officers. Before I joined CNN, I must tell you that there was a great deal of my career, some part of my career where I represented some police officers. And I will tell you again that it's very difficult, particularly when the people who are complaining are admitted gang members.

Jurors look around and they say, you know, this is a tough business and they sometimes have a tough time condemning the police officers.

The prosecution in this case also had a very, very difficult situation in that, as Charles pointed out, much of this came from a fellow by the name of Rafael Perez, who turned state's evidence after he got caught stealing cocaine. And to avoid a great long sentence, he then turned in many, many, many police officers.

Well, he was unable to be produced by the Los Angeles district attorney's office because that they felt that he was a bad witness because of this girlfriend, who later, by the way, recanted her statement regarding the murders that he allegedly committed. And she failed a lie detector test.

But nevertheless, the Los Angeles district attorney's office failed to produce him as a witness and also failed to produce a couple of other victims of the case. And so the defense lawyers were able to look the jury in the eye and say, why didn't they produce this Perez, why didn't they produce these other two people? Wouldn't you be better off hearing it from their lips rather than the way you did it?

And remember, this is always guilt beyond a reasonable doubt, whether it's a police officer or whether it's someone else. And this jury apparently believed in some counts the district attorney just failed.

ALLEN: Well, as we just heard from Charles Feldman, this is the first trial of 70 officers under investigation, and the prosecutor watching to see the outcome here to decide how to proceed. If you were a prosecutor here, what message does this send?

COSSACK: You know, this is a message that all prosecutors who defend police officers -- or excuse me, all defense lawyers who defend police officers and all prosecutors who prosecute police officers know, that it is a tough battle to convict a police officer and you better have your ducks in a row, particularly when the victims of the police officers happen to be gang members, as they are in this case.

And I think that the message that is loud and clear is that juries are going to want to hear it from this Rafael Perez. They are going to want to see him, they are going to want to see him cross- examined. And they are going to want to hear and see from the victims in these cases.

And you know, that just cuts both ways. I mean, this is a not -- this is a person who's admitted doing terrible things. He's going to get up on the witness stand and get cut to shreds by defense lawyers on cross-examination. That is why the prosecution is frightened of putting him up there.

But it's clear, I think, from this jury at least that the way they're going, this way, just doesn't seem to work, and they better figure out -- go to plan b.

ALLEN: Roger Cossack, we thank you. Back to Charles Feldman for a final comment -- Charles. FELDMAN: Well, again, to try and sort this all out, we have guilty verdicts against sergeants Edward Ortiz and Brian Liddy as well as another officer, Michael Buchanan, and Officer Paul Harper, the fourth defendant, apparently not guilty.

Again, as I said, this is a trial that is very significant. Although it only involved four police officers, it was the first one stemming from this corruption probe. It got involved with the district attorney's race here. The Justice Department now has a consent decree with the Los Angeles Police Department. All of this stemmed from this corruption probe.

So there are likely to be more indictments both at the state and federal level in months to come, and I'm sure prosecutors at both levels will be looking over the results of this trial to see where they go from now.

ALLEN: All right, Charles Feldman, we thank you. And keep it here. Charles likely will have a full report on that verdict and the trial in L.A. later today on CNN.



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