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Thursday, July 03, 2008

The gang's all here

I recently settled one homicide case and I’ve got three more pending. They’re all in San Fernando, all involve Valley Hispanic gang members shooting at each other.

In one case, my client (not a gang member) was driving two gangster friends to get McDonald’s. On the way, the passenger saw a car belonging to a rival gangster. He told my client to speed up, and then shot into the rear of the car, narrowly missing the car seat carrying the year old infant, killing her uncle in the next seat.

In the second, my client went to a party with some homies and asked his sister to pick him up because the others were going to go cruising. His father, who was angry that his son had disobeyed him by hanging with his gangster friends, told his sister not to give him a ride. So, my client got into a truck with three others. One of the guys in the back seat testified that they drove into an enemy ‘hood and shot at some rival gang members who ran away. Some of the bullets from the .45 traveled about 40 to 50 yards away, entering the wall and window of two apartments, narrowly missing a child in a crib.

In the third, my client and two friends went to a flyer party. My client’s friend refused to be searched on entry, pulled a gun and shot a rival gang member who was standing in a crowd of partiers.

In the case I recently settled, my client and his friend stopped at an intersection and were met by a mentally challenged young man, a gang member who was probably selling drugs and was too stupid to realize they were from rival gangs. He was shot and died there.

My client had maintained his innocence for two years, in the face of two witnesses against him. One was a young man who was riding in a car that crossed the intersection at the time of the shooting. He claimed to identify my client and the other man as the ones in the shooting car. Another was my client’s former girlfriend, who claimed he "bragged" about the shooting to her. She had plenty of motive to dislike my client by the time she told the police about this supposed statement, 6 months after it made to her. She had become pregnant by him, and had been beaten up by some of his home girls, at his order, she believed.

As we neared the trial date, we discovered that the eyewitness had been recently arrested for carjacking. He claimed a gang "moniker." All this placed his credibility in doubt, so the D.A. offered a reduced plea to manslaughter — a term of about 11 years in prison instead of life. When the day for the plea arrived, my client told me that the witness, whose case as a defendant happened to be set on the same date, was placed in the same holding cell that morning. They had "talked" and the witness (now an inmate / defendant) told my client that he didn’t intend to testify. He’d been "forced" by police to testify at the preliminary hearing.

Quite upset, I told my client that in my opinion the witness who changed his testimony under these circumstances would be presumed to have been threatened to do so. Despite my client’s denials, that is how it would appear to the D.A., the judge, and a jury. BUT, I told him I would continue the case and investigate this if he wished. After hesitation, my client decided to take the deal instead.

I mention all of this because in each of these cases, the D.A.’s and police claim concern for the safety of their witnesses who testify against gang members. They have used changes in the laws to deny the defense access to identifying information, especially addresses of witnesses for as long as possible. In short, the police, prosecutors, and courts treat gang cases the way the "Patriot Act" treats terrorists, limiting traditional due process protections while at the same time demanding harsher penalties.

Gang cops and specially assigned gang unit D.A.'s have contempt for defendants, their attorneys (even if appointed by courts rather than "hired"), and for judges and laws demanding "rights" for the accused that frustrate their perception of justice. Though this frustration is sometimes justified because voluntary witnesses are hard to come by because of the age-old problems of fear, family, distrust of authority, deportation, etc., the self-righteous prosecutors pursue the end no matter the means.

Several years ago, I had a case which was dismissed by a D.A. before the preliminary hearing because he had no witnesses. He told me that he was violating his office’s policy to keep gang defendants in jail for as long as possible even if there was not enough evidence to proceed to trial by continuing it, getting past the prelim by using hearsay, offering lesser pleas. But he knew the policy was unethical, so he was dismissing the case.

This week the L.A. Times reported about a case in which police interrogated a girlfriend of a gang member accused of murder. She had refused to finger the accused, but police told the suspect that she had named him. They went so far as to fabricate a "6-pack," a photo ID folder with the suspect’s picture circled, and the girl’s signature forged underneath, in order to encourage the suspect to confess.

Courts have never had problems with police lying to suspects about "evidence" if it yields a "truthful" confession. I’ve had many cases in which the defendant confessed after police told him his fingerprints were at the scene, or that witnesses or other suspects had named him. "They fingered you, so you better tell us your side of it..."
In this case, however, the girl — who had not in fact "snitched," was murdered, apparently on the telephoned order of the accused.

Just to add to the carnage, police arrested the brother of one of the suspects as the shooter of the girl / witness and tried to get him to confess, using three more faked photo show-up folders. He eventually was exonerated — after spending 6 months in jail, when he proved he was at a Dodgers game at the time of the crime. He was awarded $320,000 in a wrongful arrest suit.

The parents of the murdered girl are suing the city, claiming that police, after lying to the suspect about her "snitching," failed to warn her of any danger.

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