Wednesday, August 29, 2001
County Bar Panel to Probe Rampart Sets September Launch
By ROBERT GREENE, Staff Writer
Twenty-three jurists, attorneys and scholars have agreed to study criminal justice institutional failures that contributed to the Rampart scandal and have slated a Sept. 6 meeting to launch their probe.
The Los Angeles County Bar Association’s trustees approved the project in April, but County Bar leaders and Ninth U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals Judge Arthur Alarcon—-who is to chair the effort—took the summer months to conduct a painstaking search for members.
“The group was selected because of their experience over the years in the criminal justice system,” Alarcon said, noting that none of the participants is a current member of the institutions to be studied—the District Attorney’s Office, the Public Defender’s Office and the Los Angeles Superior Court.
The panel is to focus on the accuracy of defendants’ guilty pleas, prosecutors’ faith in the testimony of arresting officers, and roadblocks to defendants receiving the exculpatory information that they are entitled to by law.
Probes of the Los Angeles Police Department last year cast doubt on the testimony of a number of officers. Eventually, 105 cases were dismissed because of tainted evidence uncovered in the course of the Rampart investigations.
That alone suggested a serious problem, but Alarcon said he was “shocked” to find that defendants pled guilty in 85 percent of those cases.
Observers of the county’s criminal justice system say those figures point to a problem that goes far deeper than possible corruption in the LAPD, and could include the culture of the entire adversarial justice institutions.
In the so-called Rampart scandal, disgraced LAPD Rafael Perez met his end of a plea bargain in a cocaine theft case by detailing numerous instances of evidence tampering and perjury by himself and his colleagues, prompting outcry over LAPD practices, a flurry of probes into the department and a consent decree between the city and the U.S. Department of Justice for LAPD reform.
Perez also revealed that he and his partner shot an unarmed man after falsely accused him of attacking them. Outcry over the justice system reached its peak when it was reported that a Superior Court judge handed Perez’s victim, Javier Ovando, a severe sentence on trumped-up charges because in pleading not guilty Ovando failed to show remorse for the crime that, it turned out, he did not commit.
The LAPD conducted its own internal probe, and the Police Commission launched its Rampart Independent Review Panel, both of which focused solely on the LAPD.
The County Bar group’s probe is to focus not on the LAPD, but on problems with the courts, prosecutors and defense lawyers.
According to a mission statement sent to each of the participants, the panel is to “analyze various institutional components of our adversarial criminal justice system and determine, in light of recent events, whether reforms are needed in order to ensure that pleas of guilty or nolo contendere are supported by an accurate factual basis and that criminal convictions are predicated on credible and truthful evidence of violations of criminal law.”
Joining Alarcon in spearheading the drive to create the panel was County Bar President-Elect Miriam Krinsky, who heads the appeals unit of the U.S. Attorney’s Office.
Members include former California Supreme Court Justice Cruz Reynoso, former Ninth Circuit Judge and Education Secretary Shirley Hufstedler, current U.S. District Judges Audrey Collins and Lourdes Baird, Second District Court of Appeal Justice William Masterson, and former Superior Court Judges James Kolts and Peter Smith.
Also serving are USC School of Law professor Charles Whitebread, an expert in criminal law and procedure; former prosecutor Clayton Anderson; defense lawyer Herbert Barish; former assistant U.S. attorney and Rampart Independent Review Panel member Julie Blackshaw; O’Melveny & Myers attorney Brian Currey; attorney William Hastie; defense attorney and former Alarcon clerk Janet Levine; Rampart Independent Review Panel member Tony Richardson of Kirkland & Ellis; Long Beach defense attorney Edward George, defense lawyer Richard Hirsch; former State Bar president Anthony Murray; former prosecutor Harry Sondheim; attorney Bart Williams of Munger, Tolles & Olson; and defense lawyer Michael Yamamoto.
Edward George, the well-known defense lawyer from Long Beach, called his colleagues in the effort a “very interesting group” with a “lot of horsepower.”
“I hope that together we can provide some answers to this very vexing problem,” he said.
Michael Yamamoto offered a more cautious approach.
“You get a riot or a scandal and you get a commission, but nothing much seems to change,” Yamamoto said. “Problems like these are just so entrenched. But still, you feel that you have to do something.”
Copyright 2001, Metropolitan News Company