Testilying in L.A.

From: mnovick@laedu.lalc.k12.ca.us (michael novick)
Subject: LA Times on police "testilyin'"
Charges of Police Lying Haunt Cases Whether officers' false testimony is deliberate or an innocent mistake is often difficult to prove. Officials contend such problems are rare.


The 11 p.m. news was on when gasoline-filled bottles came crashing through the window of an apartment in the Pueblo del Rio housing project. A woman and her 11-month-old daughter were engulfed in flames. Within hours, the police announced to an anxious community that the homicides were solved: An 18-year-old gang member had confessed.

But the case was not that simple. After Robert Vanke had spent four years in jail awaiting trial, an FBI expert determined that his taped confession had been altered. His attorney contended that police intentionally erased two crucial minutes of tape, making an innocent man appear guilty.

Detectives said the erasures were inadvertent and innocuous. But the prosecutor, voicing serious doubts about Vanke's guilt, dismissed the charges. The Vanke case and a series of other cases haunted by allegations of police misconduct were examined as part of a broader study of homicide in Los Angeles County.

The review was undertaken amid allegations that police had framed O.J. Simpson. These allegations fueled mistrust of police, particularly in minority communities. The examination focused on a dozen instances in which evidence established that Los Angeles Police Department officers had falsely testified or withheld crucial evidence. In four other cases, prosecutors dismissed murder charges after questions were raised about the conduct or veracity of police. How often police testify falsely or withhold evidence is impossible to know. Every day in court, witnesses and police accuse each other of lying about what police were told during their investigations. But seldom is there independent evidence to disprove the police version. In each case that was reviewed, there were lingering questions about whether the alleged police misconduct resulted from an intentional act or an innocent mistake.

For example:

* A detective testified about how he smooth-talked a murder suspect into voluntarily coming to the station for questioning. It never happened. The officer was on vacation. The error, he later said, arose out of confusion.

* A detective failed to disclose that he paid $100 to an eyewitness who identified a murder suspect. The payment was not disclosed, the officer said, because its disclosure could have endangered the informant.

* A detective swore that he had confirmed where a murder suspect lived before police raided the house. But the suspect had been dead for months, dead even before the murder occurred. The detective later insisted that he had checked the house and was given erroneous information by the suspect's mother.

To some, an officer's intent is irrelevant. For people who are victims of such conduct, "it doesn't matter that the officers say it was an innocent mistake," said Georgetown University law professor Abbe Smith. "It is a terrible thing to come into court and watch an officer testify falsely, and watch everyone else believe the testimony."

Smith said her years as a public defender and as deputy director of the Harvard Criminal Justice Institute convinced her that such instances happen most often to poor people and minorities. "Experiences like this make impoverished people convinced that the system is not for them," she said.

The magnitude of that mistrust was illustrated by Los Angeles Times polls in 1994 and 1995, which found that most people of color do not trust the police and most white people do. More than two-thirds of African American residents of Los Angeles County believe that police commonly testify falsely, the polls found. About half of the Latinos agreed, versus only a quarter of whites. The polls were conducted before and after the Simpson murder trial, in which allegations of police lying became a major focus.


Police are authorized to lie during investigations in pursuit of the truth. Police can lie during undercover operations. They can use ruses to find out where people live so they can get search warrants. At homicide school, a reporter watched as officers were taught to bluff suspects into confessing by pretending to have evidence when they did not. They were taught to use falsely labeled notebooks, supposedly containing reams of evidence. Detectives put this kind of advice into practice. In one case, detectives went into an interview armed with the statement of Ivan Benad, a resident of Wish Avenue. Court records show that Benad existed only in the minds of the homicide detectives. His name was a play on words: "I've been had." As other detectives interviewed suspect Chico William Donnell, they told him they had plenty of evidence: A witness put him at the scene; his fingerprints were found on the murder weapon. He could trust them, the detectives said, because the U.S. Supreme Court had ruled that they could not lie to suspects. But that assurance was only one more lie. As Deputy Dist. Atty. Brenda Burns told the judge in defending the technique: "The state of the law is very clear about what detectives can and can't do. They can lie, they can make up evidence, and they can say a lot of leading and suggestive things to defendants."

New York University law professor Jerome Skolnick says society has condoned such lies "ostensibly because the good end of criminal capture and conviction justifies the bad means of lying." But he questions whether a culture that encourages such ruses out of court is able to leave them at the courtroom door. "One could take the view that this [the courtroom] is a totally different context, so suffused with dignity and the sacred that police would inevitably find it abhorrent to lie in such a revered setting," Skolnick said. "Regrettably, the evidence suggests otherwise."

Former New York City Police Commissioner William Bratton said: "A lot of police chiefs would not admit there is a problem with 'testilying.' It is a problem--for the profession. You have to face up to it. What's the scope of it? The impact of it? That's debatable." In May 1995, LAPD Det. Andrew Teague took the witness stand and testified that two men on trial for murder had signed statements claiming that the chief witness against them, Racjon Floyd, was the real killer. Actually, the documents were phony, prepared as a ruse by Teague himself. Teague had taken the suspects' signatures and pasted them onto witness forms. He wrote in their supposed statements and copied them before he went to interrogate Floyd. The ruse was designed to convince Floyd that it was in his interest to cooperate with Teague and implicate the two suspects. But asked in court about the documents, Teague testified that they were authentic. The defense had a handwriting expert appointed. When that expert asked Teague's partner for the original documents, Teague said there were no originals. He told the prosecutor he had forgotten about the forgery. Teague's admission caused the prosecution to dismiss the case. The case could not have come at a worse time. Det. Mark Fuhrman had been accused of lying in the Simpson case when he denied using the word "nigger"--an accusation that later led to his perjury conviction. LAPD Chief Willie L. Williams--already faced with a public furor over police lying--publicly condemned Teague and suspended him. But a police review board later concluded that an overworked Teague had simply made a mistake because he had failed to review his investigative file before testifying. "It was not a mistake of the heart," said a civilian board member. "It was only a mistake of the mind." The finding seemed implausible to the defense attorney, Armando Wood, who wondered how Teague could have gone to so much trouble to create a ruse and then forgotten about it. "If my clients gave an excuse like that," said Wood, a deputy alternate public defender, "nobody would believe them." Teague has sued Chief Williams, claiming he was slandered by Williams' comments. That lawsuit is pending.


Paying a Witness The case of Michael Carr shows how the actions of an officer can be viewed in dramatically different ways. Carr was accused of being one of two gunmen who burst into a hotel room before dawn and opened fire in 1991. A man and a woman were killed; a third occupant was badly wounded. Deputy Dist. Atty. Karen Thorp, like many prosecutors, was used to having terrified witnesses back away from identifications. But witness Terence Rose contended that he had only made the identification because LAPD Det. Rudy Lemos had paid him $100. Most shocking to the prosecutor was that Lemos acknowledged the payment. The detective said the payment was to secure the witness' help in finding another witness. "Why would you ever give an I.D. witness, or any witness, money?" Thorp recalled asking. After the prosecutor detailed the incident in a memo, the judge stopped the trial and held a hearing. Records showed that Lemos paid Rose the $100 on the same day, and at the same time, that Rose made the identification. The detective said the money and the identification were not connected. Just after Rose made the identification, he asked for money to buy Christmas presents for his children, Lemos said. Lemos got authorization for the $100 from a superior. But he did not disclose the payment to trial attorneys. He explained he had not wanted Rose labeled a "snitch." After hearing from Rose and Lemos, the judge said he found portions of both versions "incredible." Superiors at the LAPD investigated what they termed Rose's "preposterous" allegation. They concluded that Lemos was a veteran policeman with a reputation for integrity and that he had done nothing improper or unusual: Police often pay people who help them and do not list the payments in their investigative reports. The investigation concluded that Rose had backed away from his identification because Carr had intimidated him. The payment so contaminated the trial that the prosecutor decided against using Rose. That left only one witness against Carr--Kenneth Cole, who survived the motel room attack. The defense alleged that Cole too benefited from cooperating in the murder investigation; his bail in an unrelated attempted murder case kept being reduced, until finally he was released without bail. Lemos testified that he had nothing to do with Cole's bail reductions. He said that, to the best of his knowledge, neither he nor his partner had even talked about Cole's case with the judge or attorneys. However, Deputy Public Defender Douglas Goldstein testified that he had several conversations with Lemos or his partner and that they agreed not to oppose Cole's release on bail. In reducing bail, the judge had noted that the prosecution had no objection "if defendant continues to cooperate" with Lemos and his partner. After hearing Goldstein contradict Lemos, Judge Robert Perry had heard enough. "I have a significant doubt . . . to whether or not Mr. Carr committed these offenses," Perry said in taking the case away from the jury and finding Carr not guilty. The jury convicted the other alleged gunman, Eric Buford, and he was sentenced to two life terms.

Costly Search Warrant When two youths were killed for videotaping gang members cruising along Crenshaw Boulevard, the police planned a massive raid of 18 houses in 1993 to catch the suspects. Det. Mark Arneson was assigned to confirm that suspect Gregory Davis lived in a house in Inglewood. Arneson said that Davis' mother confirmed his residency. Based on that assurance, police obtained a search warrant and conducted a nighttime raid. But Davis was not home. He had died in a traffic accident months earlier, even before the killings. His mother, who still lived in the house, sued the police in federal court. Gloria Tave contended that they had "terrorized" her. Arneson testified in the plaintiff's suit that he had gone to the house and confirmed that Davis lived there--testimony that was backed up by his partner. U.S. District Judge Edward Rafeedie said before trial that he believed that verification was "completely whole cloth . . . invented as a matter of convenience to satisfy the requirements of the judge" who had been asked to sign the search warrant. Rafeedie urged the city to settle the suit. The city went to trial anyway. The jury awarded Tave $68,850 and--in a rare display of displeasure--ordered Arneson to personally pay $1,000 of the judgment. In an interview, Arneson insisted that he really had gone to the house. "She told me her boy was there," he said. "She didn't tell me he was dead. . . . I'm not going to fictionalize." Arneson speculated that the jury had been racially biased in favor of Tave and against him because she is black and he is white. Arneson, a 19-year LAPD veteran and gang expert, transferred out of homicide after his credibility became an issue in several other cases as well. Now a patrol sergeant in Watts, Arneson said he was fed up with "completely outlandish" attacks from defense attorneys who dislike him because of his success in catching killers.

Copyright Los Angeles Times

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