LOS ANGELES - The first trial in the city's largest police scandal may determine more than the fate of the four policemen charged with framing gang members for crimes they didn't commit.
Legal observers say the chances of convictions are slim. And acquittals could make prosecutors reluctant to bring more corruption cases to trial, intensifying already solid public cynicism about whether police officers are immune from the justice system.
The prosecution may have chosen the wrong case to lead off its attack on police corruption, said Gigi Gordon, a defense attorney coordinating writs seeking to dismiss gang convictions that have been tainted by the scandal centered on the Rampart police station.
''Of all the cases, the selection of this one to prosecute seems completely arbitrary,'' said Gordon. ''It's as if someone threw a dart at a board and picked this one.''
Prosecutors refuse to comment on the trial. Jury selection began last week and is to resume Tuesday.
The defendants are four veteran policemen - Sgt. Edward Ortiz, Sgt. Brian Liddy and officers Paul Harper and Michael Buchanan - who are accused of planting evidence, filing false police reports and committing perjury in order to frame gang members. In one instance, a gun was allegedly planted. In another, a reputedly false report alleged assault on police officers.
Their accuser is a former colleague, disgraced officer Rafael Perez, whose name has become anathema in the LAPD. Charged with stealing drugs from an evidence locker, he negotiated a deal for immunity which exploded in headlines when he spilled out a story of police deceit that triggered dismissal of some 100 cases.
But Perez's reputation grows dirtier by the day. News reports have linked him to the murder of a man and his mother and federal investigators have been searching a dump in Tijuana, Mexico, for remains. His one-time teen-age lover has begun telling her story of life with the drug-dealing Perez, who one defense attorney has called ''a police monster.''
''The entire prosecution case is based on the testimony of a person who has no credibility,'' Gordon said of Perez. ''I think he's a sociopath with canned excuses for his own criminal behavior.
''In countless cases, he took the oath and lied. And this is not a case with strong corroborative evidence. I don't see how they can get a conviction.''
Loyola University law professor Laurie Levenson notes, however, that Perez was a successful witness when he testified against gang members in the old days. Juries believed him and he won convictions.
''What gives them a chance (of winning) is that there was a tremendous clamor in the community to do something about the Rampart officers,'' Levenson said. ''With Perez, you don't want to like him, but sometimes he is to be believed.''
The 33-year-old Perez will likely tell jurors the story he told in court just recently when called to testify in another case. He portrayed himself as a street warrior who broke the law while trying to clean up the city's toughest neighborhoods.
''We were out there fighting a war,'' he said. ''We felt that in our own way we saved lives.''
Asked about the philosophy of the Rampart station's anti-gang unit, Perez said: ''We intimidate those who intimidate others.''
The department has moved slowly in turning over evidence to the prosecution, fueling public suspicion about a police stonewall in the case. As late as Friday, officials resisted disclosure of police personnel files until a judge ordered them to comply.
The district attorney's office filed documents accusing police of trying the thwart the investigation.
''LAPD has failed to provide arrest reports, witness statements and background information to the district attorney's office relevant to this investigation,'' the documents said. ''In fact, on several occasions, the LAPD has actually hindered the progress of the investigation.''
Police Chief Bernard Parks has said his department was cooperating fully, pointing out it was police investigators who first brought the scandal to light. He has accused the district attorney's office of being too slow to act.
Now the district attorney's office is being challenged to show it did not rush to judgment without sufficient evidence.
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