Undoing the wrongs of L.A.'s rogue police

On the 13th floor of the Criminal Courts Building, the wheels of justice are grinding slowly.

"Don't give me that look, Ms. Gordon," says the judge, who presides over the biggest police-corruption case this city has ever seen. "Perhaps you'd like to respond directly to the district attorney's remarks instead?"

"Not at this time, your honor," says Gigi Gordon, rocking heel to toe before the dais in her lawyer-gray business suit. "But I could."

A fast-talking champion of underdog causes, attorney Gigi Gordon is facing a legal challenge that would daunt Atticus Finch. Her task: sift through up to 15,000 criminal cases spanning five years - and find the ones tainted by rogue officers of the Los Angeles Police Department.

Already, 80 convictions have been overturned in the aftermath of L.A.'s Rampart scandal, a case of police malfeasance so egregious that it trumps even the infamous Rodney King episode. The people who've been falsely prosecuted may eventually number in the hundreds, and their cases could take years to remedy.

As such, many here say, Gordon's role in righting any additional wrongs will be crucial in helping restore public trust in the city's criminal-justice system.

"This is a case where people have to be tracked down and informed. The process desperately needs someone who is going to focus on that aspect ... and not have an ax to grind," says Los Angeles attorney Robert Berke.

Of course, there is no shortage of probes into the scandal - in which one LAPD officer has implicated at least 70 fellow cops for illegally shooting suspects, using excessive force, planting evidence, and lying in court to obtain convictions, since 1995.

The US Justice Department earlier this month announced it is ready to file a civil rights lawsuit against the LAPD unless the city agrees to a host of reforms.

Closer to home, the county district attorney's office is investigating, but because it works closely with the LAPD to win convictions, its own actions are at issue. The public defender's office, which represented many defendants whose convictions are now in question, is also investigating, but it may be loath to highlight its own shortcomings.

See anything 'suspicious'?

And so, with no real office, no fax machine, no copier, and only the force of a Superior Court appointment behind her, Gordon and a "staff" of fresh-faced volunteer law students are beginning the arduous work of combing through old cases, looking for "something suspicious." Even to begin, they must track down police files spread among 400 lawyers, disparate clerks' offices, and officers and prosecutors who don't exactly want to help.

"You'd think this information would be available in one central computer or filing system," says Gordon. "You'd be wrong. I'm searching a haystack in an adversarial role here. That makes the haystack much bigger."

Her story at this juncture provides a window into the arcane world of court procedure and civilian oversight that often baffles the average citizen.

"Every part of [L.A.'s] system - prosecutors, defense counsel, judges, juries - has played a role in the miscarriages of justice," says Myrna Raeder, past chair of the American Bar Association's Criminal Justice section. "The legal system has become an entrenched culture in which everyone is looking the other way."

For now, student volunteers are meeting in a former snack room (seating for five), courtesy of the Los Angeles Bar Association. Work consists of contacting lawyers from cases known to have involved Raphael Perez, the officer who accused his colleagues in a plea agreement after he was caught stealing drugs from a police locker in 1998. Gordon estimates it will take about 10 hours to locate the files for each case.

"It's difficult, isolated, and kind of boring," says Jessica Carter, one of the law-school volunteers. But the group is heartened by examples like the Northwestern University journalism students in Chicago who helped exonerate 13 men on death row by reopening cases and pursuing DNA evidence.

After getting the files, Gordon will study handwritten police reports to try to pick out which ones smell like yesterday's fish.

One hint might be reports that are a little too repetitious, such as an officer who repeatedly writes that suspects hid drugs in film canisters or in boxes of Pokmon cards. Or a detective who reports too many cases of suspects hurting themselves - perhaps by falling down or hitting a wall - during arrest.

"I look for the implausible, the unlikely, and the repetitious," says Gordon. "When I see ... the same scenario over and over, I know they are using that scenario not because it happened, but because it worked in the past."

She adds, "When each of these cases stands alone with a different judge and a different lawyer, no one can discern the pattern of corruption. You can only do it by examining the cases all at once."

A pit bull for underdogs

When California Superior Court judge Larry Fidler picked Gordon for this job, her reputation preceded her. In the 1990 Leslie White case, her arguments led a grand jury to condemn use of jailhouse informants on grounds that their testimony is sometimes manufactured by police. Her efforts to prevent county prosecutors here from destroying records was pivotal in the 1999 release of former Black Panther Geronimo Pratt, who spent almost 20 years in jail. Recently, she won one of the largest settlements in California history for an unarmed Hispanic man, who police shot in the back 11 times.

She attributes the recent spike in police brutality to America's all-out war on drugs.

"When we declared a war on drugs,... we empowered police as street soldiers, who then did a lot of things that the public didn't understand," says Gordon. "People just wanted their neighborhoods cleaned up, and the garbage men they got were police who did unspeakable things. We gave the police a blank check, and they filled in the numbers."

In a scene destined to be repeated for years, Gordon appeared in court a fortnight ago to take up the case of one Alfredo Gomez, an immigrant who served 16 months in jail for illegal gun possession. The conviction was overturned because the arrest report was fabricated, according to Officer Perez.

Now, Gordon will try to track down Mr. Gomez, who was deported after leaving prison. Their names cleared, the wrongfully imprisoned can reclaim rights lost with their felony convictions. These include rights to work in certain occupations; voting, citizenship rights, and jury duty (for citizens); and the right to be bonded and hold driver's licenses. They will also be eligible for redress, in federal and state criminal and civil proceedings.

Already, several Los Angeles lawyers are gathering names for federal civil rights class-action suits, tort damages, and other redress. They stand to make millions in fees.

But Gordon, who is working on the Rampart case for one-third her usual hourly rate, says her only motivation is righting the legal wrongs.

A time for hue and cry?

Besides clearing the names of those abused by the system, she says she hopes the public gleans a larger lesson: the importance of citizens who are willing to take action.

After the Rodney King case, a blue-ribbon commission recommended reforms to rout out corruption in the LAPD. But "no one read it," she says of the so-called Christopher Commission report. "They put it in a drawer and walked away. This is a democracy. People have to make an outcry to get things done."

A new commission, selected by the five-member police commission, has been formed in recent weeks to investigate the Rampart scandal. But Gordon says its report may become just another 400-page doorstop.

"They will write another analysis of what went wrong," she says, "but the issue is whether the public cares and how it will manifest its will."

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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