LOS ANGELES - The judge in the Los Angeles Police Department's Rampart Division trial indicated Wednesday that three officers convicted of framing gang members may have grounds for a new trial because a computer mistake on a key piece of evidence could have misled jurors.
"I am troubled. ... This is not a small issue," Los Angeles Superior Court Judge Jacqueline A. Connor said, describing a police report that mistakenly exaggerated the injuries the police officers claimed they suffered.
The Nov. 15 convictions, which came after a monthlong trial, were the first in an investigation into allegations of police corruption in the division.
Prosecutors and defense attorneys had gathered Wednesday in Connor's courtroom to delve into an allegation of jury misconduct. An alternate juror, Wendy Christiansen, claims that Victor Flores, who was later elected jury foreman, told her he had made up his mind to convict the officers before hearing any testimony.
But after the misconduct allegation dissolved into a he-said, she-said debate, the hearing quickly turned into a discussion about the language of a police report. Officers alleged in the report that gang members hit them with a pickup truck in an alley during a July 1996 gang sweep.
Jurors relied on the report to convict Sgts. Edward Ortiz, 44, Brian Liddy, 39, and Officer Michael Buchanan, 30, of conspiracy and perjury for fabricating charges against the gang members. The jury acquitted a fourth police officer.
But defense attorneys said three jurors have told their investigators that they couldn't agree on whether the officers were actually hit by gang members.
Instead, some of them took literally a line in the report that said the officers were victims of assault with a deadly weapon "with" great bodily harm. The officers did not suffer great bodily injury, the jurors concluded, therefore they lied and were guilty of framing the gang members.
The problem is the report should have said the officers were victims of assault with a deadly weapon by means "likely" to produce great bodily injury.
The officers never claimed they suffered great bodily injury, only that their attackers intended to seriously hurt them. But on the police report reviewed by jurors, a software program incorrectly printed, "ADW w/GBI," giving the impression the officers were claiming serious injury. No one caught the mistake during the trial.
The seemingly minor distinction could result in a new trial, but legal experts say proving defendants should get a new trial based on juror confusion is difficult. A hearing is set for Dec. 15.