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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 abuses. 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 convictions. 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 process works.” 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 Office. 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 crimes. 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. BEYOND RAMPART 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 system. � 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. ‘THREE STRIKES’ 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 campaign promise. 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 vindictive.” 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. THE OUTLOOK 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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