[Hpn] Shakeup in L.A.
Sat, 20 Jan 2001 13:47:12 -0700
Shakeup in L.A.
By B.J. Palermo
National Law Journal
January 22, 2001
In less than two months as head of the nation's largest district attorney's
office, Steve Cooley has eased the treatment of three-time felons,
threatened to prosecute school board members for meeting in secret, and
acted on a major theme of his election campaign: cracking down on police
Focused on Los Angeles' Rampart police scandal, Cooley has launched a review
of allegations against police officers and has decided to appeal a judge's
reversal of the first Rampart-related convictions.
And he has promised to be more forthcoming with defense lawyers about
Rampart findings that could affect their cases.
Cooley, 52, a 27-year prosecutor, bested two-term incumbent Gil Garcetti
with 63.7 percent of the vote on Dec. 4 as Los Angeles district attorney,
after a campaign in which the police scandal was a major issue.
When he was elected in November, it had been more than a year since officer
Rafael Perez, who was caught stealing cocaine from a police locker, started
trading information for leniency.
Cooley still complains about what he considers to be the slow pace in
prosecuting accused Rampart officers, the reliance on Perez's recollections
and prosecutors' reluctance to share those disclosures with defense lawyers.
Perez described police frame-ups, shootings and beatings, planting evidence,
false reports, perjury, theft and drug dealing by officers in the anti-gang
unit of the police department's Rampart Division.
Since he started talking, only two cases have been filed against suspect
officers. Prosecutors, meanwhile, have been seeking to overturn convictions
tainted by police misconduct without bringing defense lawyers into the
process. Defense attorneys had to wait six months for information from the
district attorney's office on what Perez said. Without that information,
they say, they had no evidentiary basis for asking judges to overturn
Cooley says that will change. He is sharply critical of the way prosecutors
froze out defense lawyers and instead went to court themselves to seek writs
of habeas corpus based on the disgraced ex-policeman's word.
"They relied on a thug, thief, crook, liar and perjurer to direct them to
tainted cases," Cooley says in an interview. Instead, "we should provide
full disclosure to every defense attorney in each case where a suspected
officer was involved and invite them to look at the district attorney's
file. Then they would bring the writs of habeas corpus."
Garcetti's approach, he says, was "a complete misunderstanding of how the
Garcetti was out of town and couldn't be reached. During the campaign, he
said that the names of suspect officers had to remain confidential while
they were being investigated.
So far, five police officers have been fired and about 35 more either
resigned or retired during the investigation or were disciplined by the
police department. Although dozens of civil lawsuits brought by alleged
victims of the Rampart police have been settled, the city expects to settle
about 200 such lawsuits, at a cost of about $125 million. And of the
countless convictions in question, about 150 Rampart-related convictions
have been overturned, most of them at the request of the district attorney's
Soon after taking office, Cooley appointed two prosecutors to review the
handling of the Rampart cases.
"The defense community still doesn't know which cases they should be looking
at," he says.
Besides the treatment of the defense bar, he is scrutinizing the plea
bargain granted to Perez, which reduced his prison sentence to five years
for stealing the cocaine and immunized him against prosecution for other
The unit also is weighing the unresolved investigations of officers who were
implicated by Perez. Of the two cases that have been filed, the one against
Perez's partner, Nino Durden, is awaiting trial. Although the other case has
been tried, the Superior Court judge in December overturned the jury's
conviction of three officers for framing gang members, and admitted her own
error in allowing misleading police documents as evidence. Cooley says that
he'll appeal -- a decision that was opposed by some holdover prosecutors.
If Cooley's election campaign resembled a crusade for integrity in public
service, it did not end with the Rampart scandal. He recently decided to
have the grand jury investigate the fatal police shooting of a mentally ill
homeless woman whose 1999 death, in a dispute with police over a shopping
cart, led to public criticism by the Los Angeles Police Commission's
inspector general and a settlement with the woman's family.
One of Cooley's first actions as district attorney was to establish three
new units in his office:
€ An organized crime unit, the office's first special unit devoted to that
problem. (Speaking of mobsters, he says, "My sense is they're out there, and
they're running amok.")
€ A justice system integrity section, designed to pursue rogue police
officers, defense attorneys, judges and others in the criminal justice
€ A public integrity section, to seek out corruption in public office,
including election law violations.
High on its agenda is the Belmont Learning Complex, the half-built, $200
million high school abandoned by the Los Angeles Unified School District
because of explosive and toxic fumes emanating from an underlying oil field.
An auditor's report cited numerous violations of environmental laws by
school district officials, but the district attorney's office concluded that
no crimes were committed.
"The district attorney issued that result without investigating the
auditor's allegations," Cooley says. "The auditor called it 'prosecutorial
whitewash.' I think when we get through, he won't say that."
When he was slightly more than a month in office, Cooley took the highly
unusual step of threatening a lawsuit or criminal prosecution of school
board members for meeting in closed session, in violation of the state
sunshine law, to discuss Belmont issues.
In an action that has surprised some lawyers, the politically conservative
Cooley has announced that he will seek life sentences rather than the death
penalty in some murder cases involving defendants in foreign countries that
will not extradite those suspects.
However, the DA drew the greatest notice when he revised his office's policy
for applying California's "three strikes" law, the fulfillment of a major
Under the law, those convicted of a third felony are sentenced to a minimum
of 25 years to life in prison. Horror stories have abounded about the
application of the law to defendants accused of relatively minor crimes,
such as shoplifting, and using the threat of the law to obtain guilty pleas.
Cooley instructed his deputies not to consider felonies as "strikes" unless
they involved serious or violent crimes or certain narcotics violations, and
to avoid using the law for coercive plea-bargaining. The new guidelines also
call for early decisions on whether to file a case as a third strike, which
would save the substantial resources needed for a three-strikes defense.
"Unless a DA such as Steve Cooley is willing to stand up and be accountable,
the judges strike the strikes at their political risk," says Public Defender
Michael P. Judge. "It's so critical that the DA be a responsible and honest
and forthright public official."
Cooley plans to station some of his office's 1,200 prosecutors in various
parts of the city, to get to know the neighborhoods where they accuse
defendants of committing crimes while keeping an eye on the activities of
the different police divisions -- a direct response to the Rampart scandal.
The new DA has spent several years far from downtown himself, first as head
deputy in far-north Los Angeles County's Antelope Valley and then as head
deputy in an office in the San Fernando Valley.
In 1996, he supported Garcetti's electoral opponent. Afterward, he was
reassigned to the welfare fraud unit, then considered the Siberia of the
office even though it's located downtown. Such political reassignments are
known in the office as "freeway therapy," and that's how Cooley sees it.
"I was transferred to the smallest, most backwater, most unpopular division
of the L.A. County district attorney's office," Cooley says. "But I wasn't
even angry. They get to do that if they're of a mind to be retaliatory and
However, he turned the assignment to his advantage, pursuing major welfare
cheats and suggesting changes in the system that were adopted in 1999 by a
county grand jury and the county Board of Supervisors. "You make your own
happiness in this world," he says.
Attorneys say that whether Cooley will achieve that level of success with
the Rampart issues is still to be seen, given the widespread systemic
problems involved. For example, says Judge, even if prosecutors' files are
offered to the defense, there is no assurance that the police department
submitted all exonerating evidence.
After Superior Court judges began questioning the accuracy and thoroughness
of the police records they were receiving, a countywide committee was formed
to review the issue. Under threat of a lawsuit, Los Angeles officials were
forced by the federal Justice Department in November to consent to
court-monitored police department reforms.
But during this honeymoon with the legal community, the new district
attorney has raised expectations. "It will be a very straightforward, honest
administration, as nonpolitical as possible," says one prosecutor.
"I think the new administration is much more interested in what our
perspective is on the defense side," says Gigi Gordon, who heads a Los
Angeles County panel of court-appointed defense lawyers. "At this point we
know more than they do about how bad things are."
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