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Burden of Proof

Rogue Cop Shakes Foundation of Thousands of Cases in L.A. Courts

Aired January 27, 2000 - 12:30 p.m. ET

THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

CHIEF BERNARD PARKS, LOS ANGELES POLICE: I am committed to eliminating any corruption within the LAPD, and I have recommended through our task force that the district attorney resolve these cases immediately.

GIL GARCETTI, LOS ANGELES CO. DISTRICT ATTORNEY: If you cannot have faith and trust in your police officer, either as a citizen, as a juror, as a judge, as a defense lawyer, as a district attorney, then we do not have an acceptable, a viable criminal justice system.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

GRETA VAN SUSTEREN: Today on BURDEN OF PROOF: Corruption within the Los Angeles Police Department, and now a rogue cop is talking. What started as an internal probe of theft from a police locker has shaken the foundation of thousands of cases in Los Angeles courts.

ANNOUNCER: This is BURDEN OF PROOF with Greta Van Susteren and Roger Cossack.

VAN SUSTEREN: Hello and welcome to BURDEN OF PROOF. Roger is off today.

So far, 21 convictions have been reversed in a growing scandal within the Los Angeles Police Department. Former officer Rafael Perez has led investigators to the cases as part of a plea agreement from charges of stealing cocaine from an evidence locker.

Perez has confessed that he and fellow officers framed innocent persons, including shooting an unarmed suspect and planting evidence on him.

Chief Bernard Parks says Perez has identified 99 individuals whose convictions were wrongly obtained. The convictions were the results of 57 cases stemming from Los Angeles Police investigations.

Now the district attorney's office is reviewing more than 1,500 cases. And that number could reach as high as 4,000 cases.

Joining us today from Los Angeles, attorney for the former police officer Rafael Perez, Winston Kevin McKesson. And here in Washington are Brian Jones (ph); general counsel for the D.C. Public Defender's Office Ron Sullivan; and Monique Baldwin (ph). And in our back row, Richard Stockwell (ph), Barry Krago (ph) and Gaither Martin (ph). And also joining us from Los Angeles is CNN correspondent Charles Feldman.

Charles, first to you, where does this LAPD Corruption story begin?

CHARLES FELDMAN, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Well, it begins, as you said, with a now former LAPD officer named Rafael Perez. He worked in an elite anti-drug, anti-gang unit known in Los Angeles as CRASH. And he was caught red-handed stealing cocaine from of all places the police evidence locker. As part of a plea agreement in order to shorten his sentence, he started telling a story, and a story that has now exploded into one of the biggest corruption scandals the Los Angeles Police Department has seen in well over 60 years. Stories about how he and his partner and others planted evidence, shocked at least one unarmed suspect, framed innocent people, and as we speak now, there are at least 20 other police officers under investigation. How many more is anyone's guess really.

As I think you just mentioned at the top of the show, the number of cases that have to be looked at range, depending upon who you talk to, from 1500 all the way up to 4000 or 5000. This case has all the prospects of going on for quite some time, and is going to cost the city a lot of money, but it has also cost the city a lot in its moral authority.

VAN SUSTEREN: Charles, how many men or women have actually been released from prison to date, from Rafael Perez's cooperation with the police?

FELDMAN: I believe the actual figure is, I think, it's five people who have actually been released from prison, the others either have already served time and are out on parole, probation and in some cases these were foreign nationals and they were actually deported. So I think it's five now.

VAN SUSTEREN: Charles, what's the reaction of the district attorney, Gil Garcetti?

FELDMAN: Well, the district attorney has been publicly and I'm sure privately outraged by what's going on. No district attorney after all likes to have to go and undo a conviction, and in fact, prior to this case, at least in anyone's recent memory here in Los Angeles County, that had never been done before. So you go from a D.A.'s office that never had to go and ask for a conviction to be overturned, to one in which since September you have over 20 or 22 convictions now overturned. And Mr. Garcetti has indicated that in the next few weeks he intends to seek the setting aside of as many as three dozen other cases, and that's just the beginning. These are just the cases that are tied to former officer Perez.

The police department, as chief Bernard Parks mentioned last night in his news conference, has yet to even interrogate those other police officers that had been implicated by Mr. Perez.

VAN SUSTEREN: Are there any indictments of any police officers? or has former officer Perez been indicted?

FELDMAN: Well, to this date, nobody has actually been charged with the exception of Mr. Perez by the way, who, of course, has already accepted a plea agreement and stands convicted of the cocaine theft. But the other police officers, none of them have actually been charged yet with any crimes, although the LAPD has forwarded to the district attorney its recommendation that at least three officers, two currently on the force, one that is no longer with the force, it's my understanding, that those three individuals be at least the first to be criminally charged.

VAN SUSTEREN: You know, Charles, you say that he has already pled to a cocaine count, but from the information that I've heard from you and what we discussed in the beginning of this show, Officer Perez shot somebody and planted a gun on that person, and that person was then charged, himself, and was in prison, that's attempted murder?

FELDMAN: Yes, it is. But it is a case, as often happens, where the prosecutor, in this case the district attorney, is looking for bigger fish to fry, and while the case that you are alluding to involves a man by the name of Ovando, who was framed by former officer Perez and then was shot and paralyzed.

As serious as that crime is, because of the story that Mr. Perez has been weaving about this almost systemic corruption at least in one division of LAPD, the division known as Rampart, although there are some indications now that the investigation is spreading beyond that division, because of the concern that this involves many more police officers, albeit a small number in relation to the entire department, the decision was clearly made that, in exchange for being more lenient with Mr. Perez, they may end up having successful prosecutions against many more police officers whose alleged crimes have tainted thousands of cases.

VAN SUSTEREN: Winston, you represent the police officer who is now talking. What do you anticipate will be the penalty down the road? or what is his exposure in terms of how much time could he spend in connection with this corruption?

Good morning. Thank you very much for having me.

WINSTON KEVIN MCKESSON, RAFAEL PEREZ'S ATTORNEY: At the outset. I would like to say something. I would be remiss if I didn't correct three misconceptions, the first misconception I think Mr. Feldman made is my client was not caught red- handed. The first trial, the district attorney's office called 35 witnesses. There was no direct evidence that my client was involved in any criminal activity. And the jury so found, the first jury ended in a hung jury.

The second thing, my client did enter into this deal just to reduce time off his sentence. I think the evidence is clear my client was very contrite. He could have gone to trial. In fact, I urged him to go back to trial. I believe our case was much stronger than the second case and I believe we could have gotten an acquittal.

My client had spent time in jail. He had become closer to God. He wanted to do something. He knew he had made mistakes in his life, and he wanted to make up for those mistakes, and that's why he entered into this deal.

And with the last misconception, with respect to Mr. Ovando, I would just like to say the evidence is clear that was not an attempted murder. While the shooting may be questionable...

VAN SUSTEREN: Did he shoot him?

MCKESSON: He shot him, but the shooting may have been questionable, but it was not criminal. What was criminal was the gun planting. He probably would have been held liable in a civil case, but had they just -- had the shooting just occurred, had there been no gun planting, this would not have been a criminal activity at all.

VAN SUSTEREN: Let me just ask you a question: The man who that was shot, who is now paralyzed, which of course is not the deciding factor, was he armed when your client shot him?

MCKESSON: No. What the evidence will show, madam, is that my client was doing an observation point. They were doing an OP to check out gang activity. They were in abandoned building. This young man popped up out of nowhere. The officers felt threatened and one officer fired. My client fired and relying (ph), the other officer fired.

They clearly thought the man posed an immediate threat to their lives. They later found out he was unarmed because the building was dark and they were illuminating everything by flashlights. The shooting probably was not right from a civil standpoint, but it was not a criminal shooting. What occurred later was criminal, as far as the planting of the weapon.

VAN SUSTEREN: All right, we're going to take a break.

Charles Feldman, thank you for joining us today from Los Angeles.

And up next: How a growing police scandal was uncovered by a small-time evidence locker theft. And what type of punishment will this officer be facing? Stay with us.

(BEGIN LEGAL BRIEF)

The first state law prohibiting the sale of alcoholic beverages was passed on this day in 1838 in Tennessee. The 18th Amendment, which made prohibition nationwide, took effect in 1919. In 1933, the 21st Amendment was passed, repealing prohibition.

(END LEGAL BRIEF)

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

VAN SUSTEREN: Good news for our Internet-savvy viewers: You can now watch BURDEN OF PROOF live on the World Wide Web. Just log onto www.cnn.com and click your way to the BURDEN OF PROOF link. We now provide a live video feed Monday through Friday at 12:30 p.m. Eastern time. And if you miss that live show, the program is available on the site at any time via video-on-demand.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER: The court apologized to you. That's not a regular occurrence.

OCTAVIO DAVALOS, WRONGLY CONVICTED: Well, it's good to feel that, you know, that somebody take it back what, you know -- they did something wrong and they, you know, I'm sorry. I think it's good.

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER: Is it good enough?

DAVALOS: It's good enough for me, yes.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

VAN SUSTEREN: To date, 21 convictions obtained by the Los Angeles Police have been overturned in this latest corruption scandal. The cases have been exposed by former officer Rafael Perez, who is trying to get a lighter sentence for stealing cocaine from an evidence locker. Perez now says as many as 99 people could have been wrongly convicted.

Joining us now from Los Angeles is public defender Jeffrey Gilliam.

Jeff, how serious a problem is it? Could it be as high as 99 charges that were wrongfully obtained?

JEFFREY GILLIAM, PUBLIC DEFENDER: Absolutely. The figures could go much higher before the scandal is finally completely uncovered, Greta.

VAN SUSTEREN: And what is the Public Defenders Service doing?

GILLIAM: Well, I think that what we're doing is all we can do with the information that we've received thus far. We've basically set up a procedure to review the cases that we're aware of at this point in time. However, the real problem is that we have not been given the information that we need to conduct a full investigation into the cases we have handled.

Now, mind you, we have handled probably 70 percent of the cases involved in this scandal. But yet -- and still, there is no communication with our office giving us any of the information ahead of the media, believe it or not, so we can do research and find out which of our clients have been wrongfully convicted.

VAN SUSTEREN: Ron, is this a problem in the District of Columbia. I mean, are there problems with police officers planting guns, or is this just an aberration, a bad police officer and a few of his colleagues?

RONALD SULLIVAN, GENERAL COUNSEL, D.C. PUBLIC DEFENDER'S OFFICE: Well, regrettably, I do not think it's an aberration. Planting evidence and attempted murder and that sort of thing, I will admit, is on the extreme end, but the problem of police perjury is endemic to our criminal justice system. In fact, some people say it's an intractable part of our system. And what's more troubling about perjury than the actual perjury itself is that judges and prosecutors all over the country allow this perjury to continue. With a sort of wink and a nod, police officers almost daily perjure themselves, and that's problematic.

VAN SUSTEREN: You know, Jeff, I remember when I used to practice law, I think probably every client claimed to be innocent, and every client claimed a gun had been planted on him or her. And I'll tell you, it was not only hard to convince the court, it was often hard to convince lawyers. How do we tell which are the true ones and which are not the true ones?

GILLIAM: Well, it all comes down to corroboration, and that's the big problem that we're having with our investigation now. It seems as though the investigation the LAPD is conducting basically relies upon what Officer Perez says, and then the investigators go out and try to corroborate what he has said.

Now, I think that we are perfectly able and willing to conduct such an investigation ourselves. And more importantly, as it stands right now, we have cases that are presently pending in the system, individuals who are currently incarcerated, awaiting trial. We have no way of knowing whether officers who are being investigated now are involved in their cases.

VAN SUSTEREN: Winston, where did your client go wrong? Why did a good police officer go bad?

MCKESSON: Well, you know, it's hard to say. I mean, what happened was he joined a unit, certain things were going on in the unit, lines got blurred, and he made some mistakes, and he's accepting responsibility for those mistakes. I mean, he's being a man, he's coming forward. And I think what has been lost in this whole tragedy is my client is not getting the credit that he deserves. I mean, he's actually doing a great public service. I mean, what he's doing is cleaning up the Los Angeles Police Department. One man.

VAN SUSTEREN: You know what I don't understand, though, Winston, is that you said that the criminal act wasn't shooting the one man who was paralyzed and then the gun was planted on him. But if it wasn't a criminal act to shoot him, if it was done in the course of police work in a dark area where they might have thought he was armed, why did they have to plant the gun?

MCKESSON: Oftentimes, what happens is police officers try to make the case even better than it is. They oftentimes embellish cases. I worked for five years for Johnny Cochran's office and we handled a lot of police misconduct cases. And it's not uncommon for police officers to try to embellish what has happened before, to try to make the case stronger. I mean, it was an embarrassing shooting. They shot an unarmed man. They were on duty at the time doing an observation point. They were trying to prevent a gang retaliation for a killing the previous day, and this guy popped up out of nowhere. They were afraid, they overreacted. It was a bad shooting from a civil standpoint, but it was not a criminal shooting. What happened later was criminal.

VAN SUSTEREN: Ron, what's your reaction to what Winston says?

SULLIVAN: Well, I would disagree with the legal analysis. I think, at the least, it could constitute manslaughter, sort of reckless disregard to a known risk to shoot someone without -- the gentleman said that the officers were reasonably in fear of their safety.

VAN SUSTEREN: Which sometimes happens.

SULLIVAN: Which sometimes happens, but the mere fact that an individual, to use his words, pops up at a place where police are staking out does not in and of itself represent such a risk. Police officers are trained to make these sorts of distinctions and they -- when they're going to use deadly force, they ought to be awfully sure, awfully sure that their lives are, in fact, in jeopardy.

VAN SUSTEREN: And, except, though, I will say, though, that sometimes you have to make snap judgments in rather scary places. It's planting the gun that I have such a problem with.

But we need to take a break. Up next: Many of those wrongly convicted of crimes in Los Angeles were likely represented by the public defender's office. In the wake of a corruption scandal, what's a public defender to do? Stay with us.

(BEGIN Q&A)

Q: Which three key figures in the unsolved Ramsey case are meeting today to take a fresh look at the DNA evidence?

A: Former prosecutor Mike Kane, who led the grand jury investigation, pathologist Henry Lee, and Boulder County district attorney Alex Hunter.

(END Q&A)

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

VAN SUSTEREN: Welcome back to BURDEN OF PROOF.

Winston, you wanted to respond to Ron when we went to break.

MCKESSON: Yes, I would. Oliver Wendell Homes said -- Benjamin Cardozo said years ago detach-reflection cannot be made in the face of an uplifted knife. I mean, I think Mr. Sullivan's comments were irresponsible. I mean, to call this a gang activity in a dark building, officers in fear of their life with guns out, to call this manslaughter when he knows nothing about the facts of this case...

SULLIVAN: There wasn't a gun.

MCKESSON: ... I think it's reckless and totally irresponsible.

SULLIVAN: There was no gun. The only gun was the gun that your client planted on the person who was paralyzed. Where's the gun?

MCKESSON: Sir, all -- all you know about this case -- all you know about this is what you've read in the newspaper.

SULLIVAN: Produce the gun.

MCKESSON: This is the...

SULLIVAN: Where was the gun that put the officers in a reasonable fear of their life. You cannot answer that question, because no answer exists to that question. There was no gun, knife or any other weapon that reasonably put those officers in fear of their lives, so your client, in my estimation...

MCKESSON: The people...

SULLIVAN: ... was guilty not only of planting the evidence but of an improper shooting that, if it didn't rise to the level of murder one, it certainly, certainly rose to manslaughter.

VAN SUSTEREN: And there's a huge discussion that we could all have for hours...

MCKESSON: Those comments are irresponsible...

VAN SUSTEREN: Let me just stop you for one second, because I know we could talk about this for hours on both sides.

Let me switch quickly to Jeff.

Jeff, what's the reaction of the judges? Do they believe police officers sometimes do bad things?

GILLIAM: Well, I'm sure that they probably believe that, but we have to remember that this is a system, and, quite frankly, the judges serve at leisure of the public and those that wish that they be on the bench. I will honestly say that some judges, I'm sure, do question the credibility of police officers, but I have been practicing law in the criminal courts of Los Angeles for 13 years; I have yet to have a judge look me squarely in the eye and tell me, I did not believe that police officer. I'm still looking for that day.

VAN SUSTEREN: But Jeff, you know, here's the -- Jeff, here's the problem, is that the judges don't say that often, but what do we do about the hundreds and thousands of truthful, good police officers out there who are now going to be tarnished by the activity of this police officer?

GILLIAM: I don't know that there's much that I can do for them right now, I feel badly for them, but, quite frankly, not as badly for the individuals who have been wrongfully convicted by our system. I don't feel as badly for them as I do for the children who have look up to the police officers as heroes I feel very badly for the individuals who are now pending trial who may be wrongfully incarcerated.

VAN SUSTEREN: Winston, what's your reaction of your client's former colleagues to him? Has he had any contact with them?

MCKESSON: No, he has not. No contact at all.

VAN SUSTEREN: And what -- how's your client doing now? I mean, what's he doing with his -- how is he handling this corruption scandal?

MCKESSON: Well, he's doing the best he can. He's reading, he's reading the Bible, he's visiting his family, he's trying to do the right thing.

VAN SUSTEREN: Does it trouble him that maybe one of his wrongfully-convicted people may have been deported wrongfully from the United States? Does that trouble him?

MCKESSON: We have not talked about that specifically, but obviously this whole thing troubles him or he wouldn't have come forward with all this information. People have to keep in mind he could have -- he could have gone to trial, he could have pled to the court open; he did not have to bring this forward, he did not have to put himself in a position where he probably has to look over his shoulder for the rest of his life.

VAN SUSTEREN: Winston, did anyone plead guilty who's now been released? Anyone...

MCKESSON: I -- yes, I believe certain individuals have pled guilty who are now trying to get their conviction overturned by writs of habeas corpus.

VAN SUSTEREN: Ron, in 10 seconds, that's the worst case, isn't it?

SULLIVAN: Absolutely. A person who pleads guilty for fear of a long prison sentence because they know that they cannot prove their innocence.

VAN SUSTEREN: Plus in California you have three strikes and you're out, so you better plead in certain instances, even if you're not guilty.

But that's all the time we have for today. Thanks to our guests, thank you for watching.

Should women who abandon their babies have legal protection against prosecution? Today on "TALKBACK LIVE," express your opinion about proposed state laws designed to protect the lives of newborns. That's today at 3:00 p.m. Eastern Time, noon Pacific.

And we'll be back tomorrow with another edition of BURDEN OF PROOF. We'll see you then.

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