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Wednesday, July 19, 2000

News from

The Los Angeles Times

Role of Officer, D.A. Official Questioned

By SCOTT GLOVER, MATT LAIT, Times Staff Writers

 
    A former high-profile member of the district attorney's

Rampart corruption task force and a veteran detective from the

LAPD's Robbery-Homicide Division are accused of improperly

influencing the identification of suspects in armed-robbery

cases, according to court documents and interviews.

    Judges have dismissed three cases, which were investigated

by Det. Ray Hernandez and prosecuted by ex-Deputy Dist.

Atty. George Rosenstock. Rosenstock and Hernandez deny

any wrongdoing.

    The two are accused of allowing robbery victims to study

and keep photos of their alleged assailants before attempting to

pick the attackers out in live lineups or in court, a practice that

some legal experts say corrupts the identification process. Two

victims said in interviews with The Times that they felt pressured

to make positive identifications in their cases, regardless of

whether they believed the suspects had actually committed the

crimes.

    Rosenstock, who resigned from the district attorney's office

last month, had been removed from the D.A.'s corruption task

force in February. He made headlines two months later when he publicly

accused Dist. Atty. Gil Garcetti and Garcetti's handpicked team

of prosecutors of being too slow to file charges against LAPD

officers implicated in the corruption probe.

Judge Dismisses Robbery Charges

    The cases now under scrutiny are unrelated to Rosenstock's

role in the corruption probe. They are cases he prosecuted

while assigned to the district attorney's career criminal division.

In the most recent case, a judge dismissed robbery charges

against defendant Patrick Williams last month when it was

disclosed that a victim in the case had been given a photo of

Williams before attending a live lineup in which he identified the

suspect.

    Deputy Dist. Atty. George Castello, who inherited the case

from Rosenstock when Rosenstock was transferred to the

corruption task force, asked the judge to dismiss the case

because he believed it was fatally flawed by the identification

procedure.

    Superior Court Judge Judith L. Champagne agreed.

"There has been a lot of time wasted, a lot of expense,

because of very poor tactics," Champagne told Castello. "I

hope your office will take some action."

Hernandez, who is highly regarded by his colleagues in the

LAPD and by many prosecutors as well, declined to comment

for this article.

    According to several sources in both the district attorney's

office and the LAPD, Hernandez acknowledged giving two

robbery victims photos of their alleged assailants in advance of

live lineups or preliminary hearings in which identifications were

expected to be made.

    Hernandez said he felt uneasy about this procedure, and

provided the photos only on instructions from Rosenstock, the

sources said. Hernandez said Rosenstock told him that the

practice would later be revealed to the defense in court, but that

never happened, the sources said.

    The former prosecutor also pointed to a case last year in

which he exposed the alleged coaching of a witness by another

LAPD detective. In that case, Rosenstock brought to the

court's attention that the detective allegedly had pointed out the

suspect for the victim to pick in a "six-pack," a display of six

photographs of different people used to establish the identity of

a suspect. "The judge heard that and dismissed it outright," Rosenstock

said. "I think that shows I don't really play the identification

game."

    Spillane, the district attorney official, while refusing to

comment specifically on Rosenstock's case, said the practice in

question is not sanctioned by his office.

    "This is not something we encourage or condone, because it

raises the question of impropriety," he said.

Others seized on the risk associated with such a practice.

"Erroneous eyewitness identification is the most common

cause of wrongful convictions of innocent people in this

country," said Los Angeles County Public Defender Michael P.

Judge. "For the prosecutor and the police to engage in such a

suggestive process taints the identification and corrupts the

criminal justice system."

Attorney Cites Other Cases

    The allegations against Rosenstock and Hernandez were

lodged in court papers filed by Williams' attorney in the robbery

case that was dismissed last month.

    Attorney Arna H. Zlotnik wrote in a sworn declaration that

Rosenstock "is willing and has the propensity to accept less

than truthful representations, including suggestive identification

techniques."

    Zlotnik said she and her investigator uncovered similar

alleged abuses in the handling of victims in other robbery cases

investigated by Hernandez and prosecuted by Rosenstock.

The first case Zlotnik referred to in her court papers

stemmed from the Feb. 3, 1999, strong-arm robbery of

79-year-old Ethel Austin.

    Austin, who provided Zlotnik with a sworn declaration, had

just returned home from a trip to the bank and was unlocking

her front door when a man ripped her purse from her arm,

escaping with more than $200.

    After the robbery, Austin said, Hernandez came to her

house and showed her several photos of potential suspects.

Austin said she was unable to identify anyone as her assailant.

More than two months after the robbery, on April 19,

Hernandez returned with more photos. This time, Austin said,

she made a tentative identification of one suspect, based on his

having a hair style and a complexion similar to those of the man

who robbed her.

    As soon as she made the identification, Austin said,

Hernandez stated, "That person is wanted for other crimes."

Austin said she cautioned Hernandez that she had doubts

about the identification, but she said he instructed her to sign the

photo identification report anyway.

    Austin said Hernandez returned to her house several days

later and assured her that police would get the man she had

identified and recover her purse as well. She said Hernandez

then handed her a four-page report, including a color copy of

the six-pack photo card containing a photo of the alleged

suspect, "to keep for my records."

    The next time Austin heard from Hernandez, she said, he

was calling to inform her that police "had the guy [who] took

my purse" and that she had to testify in court. During the phone

call, she said Hernandez told her that the suspect had

committed many robberies and that "they were going to put him

away for a long time."

    But when Austin took the witness stand at the preliminary

hearing Aug. 18, she looked across the courtroom at the

defendant and testified that he was not the man who had

robbed her, resulting in the dismissal of the case.

In a recent interview with The Times, Austin confirmed the

allegations contained in the declaration she had provided to

Zlotnik. She added that Hernandez had seemed angered by her

failure to identify the defendant in court.

"He kept pressuring me and asking if I was sure and I said,

'It's not the guy,' " Austin recalled.

    Roosevelt Gordon, another robbery victim, said he was

similarly troubled by his dealings with Hernandez.

Gordon was held up at gunpoint outside his home in

South-Central Los Angeles after a trip to the bank. He told

police on the day of the robbery, Jan. 9, 1999, that one man

pointed a gun at him while another pulled his wallet from his

pocket, took his keys and ransacked his car.

    About two months after he was robbed, Gordon was at a

neighborhood gas station when he saw a man who he believed

had held him up. As the man pumped gas, Gordon scribbled

down his car's license plate number. He then hurried home and

called police.

    Later that day, two LAPD detectives came to his home and

showed him six-pack photo arrays of potential suspects.

Gordon tentatively identified one of the men pictured as the man

who had pointed a gun at him during the robbery.

The next day, March 19, Hernandez went to Gordon's

house. After showing Gordon some pictures of potential

suspects, the detective allegedly filled out a photo identification

report in which he wrote: "Photograph (3) in card (C) looks

similar to the robber who also had a gun pointed at me. . . . I

will be able to make a positive identification if I see him in

person."

    The photo was circled, with Gordon's signature alongside it.

"I do not recall signing an inaccurate and untrue statement

like this," Gordon said in a sworn declaration he provided to

Zlotnik. "I did not see [the second suspect] sufficiently to make

an identification and I recall seeing only one gun."

According to his declaration, Hernandez called him "some

time later" and told him it was time to come to court. Gordon

said police had earlier promised him the opportunity to view in

a live lineup the suspect he had tentatively identified as the man

who had held him at gunpoint, so he could be sure he had the

right man. Because he had not been given that opportunity,

Gordon refused to go to court. "It would be a waste of time," he said in his

declaration. As it turned out, Gordon was right.

    The man police said he had picked out as the second

robber--Samuel Davis--was behind bars the day the crime was

committed, and therefore could not have been involved.

The charges against both defendants were dismissed.

In a recent interview with The Times, in which he was

shown a copy of the photo card on which he allegedly identified

Davis as one of his assailants, Gordon appeared perplexed.

"That's my signature," he said, shaking his head.

But he said he had told Hernandez repeatedly that none of

the men in the photos he had been shown was the second

robber. At Hernandez's request, Gordon said, he eventually

agreed to point out the man who looked most like the

robber--even though, he said, he made clear that the man only

resembled the suspect but was not actually the person who

robbed him.

    Despite his concern, Gordon said he never set out to

challenge authorities in the case. In fact, he said, he tried time

and again to assist the investigation. "I wanted [the police] to

get this guy," he said.

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