Thank you for sharing!

Your article was successfully shared with the contacts you provided.
The police brutality and corruption scandals in New York, Los Angeles and elsewhere seem to have claimed another victim — the trust jurors used to place in police officers who take the witness stand. An informal survey of prosecutors and defense attorneys by The National Law Journal has found that they are seeing an increase in hung juries and acquittals in cases that rely primarily on police testimony, and that the reason may be a growing public cynicism regarding the honesty of police officers. Prosecutors blame the killings of several unarmed black men by police in New York, the Rampart scandal in Los Angeles and similar controversies in cities such as Hartford, Conn., Philadelphia and Louisville, Ky. “Cases that our supervisors would normally expect to get a conviction on — they are just getting hung up,” groans one Los Angeles prosecutor, speaking on condition of anonymity, as did most interviewed for this story. In addition to the weekly dismissals of convictions tainted in the Rampart scandal, police misconduct has remained in the public eye because of activity in Washington, D.C., as well. In March, Representative John Conyers (D-Mich.) introduced a bill seeking national standards for police oversight and data collection on racial profiling. On May 8, the U.S. Department of Justice, which is investigating the New York Police Department, announced that it is prepared to sue Los Angeles for a pattern of constitutional violations by police if the city doesn’t agree to reform itself. Meanwhile, Johnnie Cochran, Stephen Yagman and a growing list of civil rights attorneys are filing hundreds of millions of dollars worth of lawsuits on behalf of aggrieved citizens. Not unexpectedly, criminal defense attorneys have sought to inject the scandals into their own trials, to sow doubt among jurors. “In the past, there was a false aura of accuracy and credibility that was given to police officer testimony,” explains Los Angeles County Public Defender Michael P. Judge. “Now they seem to be evaluated by the same criteria as all other witnesses.” But where Judge sees a leveling of the playing field, some prosecutors see instead a growing threat to the integrity of the criminal justice system. “In middle and rural America, jurors have generally been untouched by these events, but we now acknowledge that this could spin off to other jurisdictions,” says Stuart Van Meveren, president of the National District Attorneys Association. “If the Los Angeles and New York situations continue to mushroom, I’m sure that more of us will experience it.” LOUIMA, DIALLO, DORISMOND In New York, it began with the brutal Aug. 9, 1997, sexual assault of Haitian immigrant Abner Louima. After his arrest outside a Brooklyn nightclub, police beat him, dragged him into a precinct bathroom and jammed a broken broom handle into his rectum. The attack was the first in a series of assaults and shootings by New York police of unarmed, predominantly black citizens — a phenomenon critics attribute to the aggressive policing instituted under Mayor Rudolph Giuliani. Public outrage toward the city’s police reached new heights with the Feb. 4, 1999, killing of Amadou Diallo, a 22-year-old West African immigrant shot dead by four white plainclothes officers in the Bronx. After approaching Diallo in the vestibule of his building, the police fired 41 shots, hitting him 19 times. Instead of the gun police say they thought they saw in his hand, Diallo was holding his wallet when he died. In February, a mostly white jury acquitted the four officers on all charges. A month later, undercover officers in Manhattan shot and killed another unarmed black man, Patrick Dorismond, who scuffled with them when they asked him for drugs. In Los Angeles, police credibility began to unravel in September 1999, when an officer accused of stealing cocaine from a property room revealed a river of brutality, corruption and evidence fabrication at the Police Department’s Rampart Division. The spreading scandal has resulted in scores of dismissed cases and the arrest of several officers. Prosecutors say that public reaction to the scandals has manifested itself in the courtroom. Police are the most common witness in any prosecution, and prosecutors say it is now more difficult to convince jurors that the officer sitting in the witness box is an honest public servant — and not a liar, thief, torturer or murderer. “If they think the cop isn’t credible, they’ll just throw the case,” says one Brooklyn prosecutor. “Where I once would bring a cop on the stand to finish out a story in the grand jury, now if it’s not … required, I won’t do it.” Following the shooting of Diallo, prosecutors in Brooklyn lost the next five homicide cases that came to verdict, he says. In March, when three of the officers involved in the assault on Louima were convicted in federal court for obstructing justice, eight cases that came to verdict the next day ended in acquittal. “When you have an 80 percent conviction rate, and when maybe nine or 10 cases come to verdict on a particular day, and eight … are acquittals, you know something is going on,” the prosecutor says. Michael F. Vechione, chief of trials for the Brooklyn DA’s Office, admits that jurors have sometimes voted in reaction to events such as the Diallo shooting, but he denies there has been any damage to his office’s conviction rate. THE RAMPART FALLOUT In Los Angeles, the Rampart scandal has resulted in the firing or suspension of 30 officers and the dismissal of more than 80 felony convictions. The effect on jurors, says one prosecutor, has become clear. In one December trial that he contends should have been an easy conviction, a defendant was charged with trying to steal a car after reaching into an open car window, but deliberations ended with a hung jury. “The only witness was a police officer,” he says. “One juror … told me that another juror refused to believe anything the cop had to say. The rest of the jurors were asking, ‘Why don’t you believe him?’ The juror refused to deliberate or give an explanation.” Sally Thomas, director of central operations for the Los Angeles County District Attorney’s Office, agrees that Rampart has negatively affected the ability to get convictions, but she adds that she is unsure how widespread that effect is. Juror skepticism is being felt most in those cases that rely almost exclusively on police testimony: drug busts. “These are the types of cases where you are preparing short-term and generally talking to the officer last-minute,” says Thomas. One of her prosecutors says that he likes to call on civilians to back up police testimony. “Unless you have a civilian witness, its going to be a lot tougher to get the jury to convict,” he says. In one recent case, he says, police sent an informant to a house to make a drug buy, but no one was home. As the informant left, he was approached by another man selling crack. Police saw the transaction, but the prosecutor insisted on testimony from the informant, too. And still, the case ended in a hung jury. “It was a solid case: pre-recorded money was found on the defendant — a solid case,” the prosecutor says, sounding exasperated. “He even confessed to another officer!” Thomas says that defense lawyers are now flashing Rampart headlines in front of jurors to capitalize on the mood. In a recent drug case, a defense attorney went so far as to allude to the Louima case in New York, says another prosecutor. “He says, ‘Maybe one day we could have believed police officers, but look what happened in New York.’” “If we have a case where we think the police are lying, of course we’re going to try and use what’s going on out there,” says defense lawyer Lisa Schreibersdorf, of Brooklyn Defender Services in New York. “Instead of trying to convince people that it’s possible that the police lie, we are now confronted with jurors who say, ‘Yeah. We know police lie.’” To combat such tactics, Thomas approved a motion urging Los Angeles County judges to bar any mention of Rampart in such trials. But prosecutors there say they must still be very careful. “When I did a closing argument before, I would say, ‘Why would a police officer risk his career to plant drugs on someone?’ ” says one L.A. prosecutor. “ Now, I don’t dare use that.” NO QUICK FIX? Former New York police commissioner William Bratton, who spearheaded that city’s aggressive policing campaign, says that a “quick fix” for police credibility would be better training. “We have done a poor job of preparing police for court,” he says. Brooklyn prosecutor Vechione agrees, saying, “If you have a skeptical juror who sees that the cop’s testimony doesn’t jibe with the paperwork, that becomes magnified in court.” Thomas says that judges should ask prospective jurors more questions about their feelings toward police. “There are some judges that balk at even asking if a juror has a relative in custody,” she says. “If you have a judge like that, you’re really in a tough position.” The Center for Jury Studies at the National Center for State Courts, in Williamsburg, Va., is conducting a three-year, 10-state study of hung juries. Director G. Thomas Munsterman says that while 5 percent – 8 percent of juries hang nationally, Los Angeles averages between 13 percent and 16 percent. In 1995, the California District Attorneys Association unsuccessfully sought a referendum on whether to impose nonunanimous criminal jury trials, now only available in Oregon and Louisiana. Other suggested reforms include reopening cases when a jury deadlocks and allowing both sides to present more evidence; prosecuting jurors who aren’t forthcoming during jury selection; and removing jurors who don’t deliberate in good faith. But public opinion can turn on judges as well. Riverside, Calif. — a city that has seen regular protests since 1998, when police killed a black woman as she sat in her car — is embroiled in a new furor. In March, Judge Vilia Sherman removed the lone black juror, who was also the only vote against execution, in a case in which the defendant was black. Jurors said that he allegedly made race-based comments about the ability of the defendant to admit having been abused as a child. The juror who replaced him ended up voting in favor of death. Munsterman says there are no reforms that seem to address the root problem: damaged public trust. Jody Armour, a law professor at the University of Southern California and an expert on race and the justice system, says that restrictive reforms, such as nonunanimous juries, will only do damage. “One of the few places that minorities are able to exercise a meaningful franchise is in the jury box, and these proposals are an effort to diminish that franchise,” he says.

This content has been archived. It is available through our partners, LexisNexis® and Bloomberg Law.

To view this content, please continue to their sites.

Not a Lexis Advance® Subscriber?
Subscribe Now

Not a Bloomberg Law Subscriber?
Subscribe Now

Why am I seeing this?

LexisNexis® and Bloomberg Law are third party online distributors of the broad collection of current and archived versions of ALM's legal news publications. LexisNexis® and Bloomberg Law customers are able to access and use ALM's content, including content from the National Law Journal, The American Lawyer, Legaltech News, The New York Law Journal, and Corporate Counsel, as well as other sources of legal information.

For questions call 1-877-256-2472 or contact us at [email protected]

Reprints & Licensing
Mentioned in a Law.com story?

License our industry-leading legal content to extend your thought leadership and build your brand.


ALM Legal Publication Newsletters

Sign Up Today and Never Miss Another Story.

As part of your digital membership, you can sign up for an unlimited number of a wide range of complimentary newsletters. Visit your My Account page to make your selections. Get the timely legal news and critical analysis you cannot afford to miss. Tailored just for you. In your inbox. Every day.

Copyright © 2021 ALM Media Properties, LLC. All Rights Reserved.