Well, I got it half-right, but at least I didn’t have to spend the night chasing looters up and down Avalon Boulevard like I did in ‘92.
I wrote two weeks ago that the prosecution’s case was coming off the rails in the trial of two Inglewood, Calif. police officers charged in the videotaped arrest of 16-year-old Donavan Jackson. I predicted acquittals for both, but only one defendant walked out of court Tuesday with a unanimous not-guilty verdict to show for his troubles. Bijan Darvish, the officer accused of filing a false police report of the incident, was cleared by the jury after three days of deliberations. The jury was deadlocked, 7-5 for conviction, on the assault charge against former officer Jeremy Morse, and the jury foreman reported there was no hope of reaching a unanimous verdict on that count. Judge William Hollingsworth declared a mistrial and dismissed the jury, thereby handing a big problem back to Los Angeles County District Attorney Steve Cooley, who must now decide whether or not to send Morse to a second trial.
It won’t be an easy call for Cooley. True, a majority of the jurors voted to convict, but for the prosecution to prevail next time they’ll need to get all twelve, while Morse and his attorney, John Barnett, would in effect need to bring around only one to achieve what would be tantamount to an acquittal. If a second jury were to deadlock, even 11-1 for guilty, the judge would very likely dismiss the case and preclude a third trial. And given the apparent certitude displayed by the five who voted for acquittal Tuesday, I’d say the Detroit Tigers (28-76) have a better shot at winning the World Series than Cooley does at getting a unanimous guilty verdict in a new trial.
But it could happen, so there are great risks on both sides. For Morse, there is of course the risk, however slight, that he will be sent off for a stretch in state prison, perhaps for up to three years. For Cooley, the risks are more difficult to calculate but nonetheless just as real. As an elected official, he naturally has an eye on the next campaign, and voters in L.A. County have shown little patience for those among his predecessors who were perceived — rightly or wrongly — as incapable of winning the big cases. I expect there will soon be negotiations for a plea bargain, perhaps involving a guilty plea to a misdemeanor, thereby giving Cooley and his office a face-saving conviction while allowing Morse to move on with his life without the stain of a felony record.
So, how to explain this outcome? First of all, the case against Darvish was tissue thin to begin with, and was fairly well shredded with only minimal effort on the part of his attorney, Robert Brower. Some in the D.A.’s office say privately that Darvish should never have been charged at all. Prosecutors presented virtually no testimony against him, relying on the videotape and the police report itself as evidence, and leaving it to the jurors to decide if the officer had any criminal intent when he failed to document the manner in which Morse slammed Jackson onto the trunk of a police car. The jurors surely decided that whatever defects the report may have had, they didn’t warrant sending Darvish to prison.
The case against Morse was of course trickier. I agreed with the prosecution’s expert witness, L.A. County Sheriff’s Cmdr. Charles Heal, who characterized Morse’s actions as excessive but not criminal. Heal, a respected and tenured veteran of the sheriff’s department, admitted to the jury he had handled people just as roughly in his career, and so has nearly every cop who’s spent any time at all on the streets. Indeed, only the most rabid cop-haters would disagree that Morse and the other officers were justified in using some force against Jackson, who prosecutors conceded resisted arrest violently during his initial encounter with sheriff’s deputies. (Jackson testified officers beat and kicked him for no reason whatsoever when he stood up from the backseat of a police car. Though his testimony was contradicted by other witnesses and by the gas station’s security tape, there isn’t the slightest chance he’ll be charged with perjury.)
The question for the jury was where to draw the line: Where did Morse’s actions veer from lawful to excessive and then to criminal force? The jurors saw things differently, as perhaps would any similarly composed group of twelve people. But I suspected a mistrial might come about when I visited the courtroom last week and had a look at the jury. It had been only a few days since Kobe Bryant was charged with sexual assault in Eagle County, Colorado, and the courthouse was naturally abuzz with gossip about the Laker star and his accuser. People will have their opinions on the Bryant matter, but one might expect a juror in another high-profile case to keep them to himself. Yet, to my absolute astonishment, when the jury entered the courtroom that day the panel’s only black member was wearing a bright yellow Kobe Bryant jersey. It might as well have had “screw the cops” written on it, for this juror had evidently made up his mind that Bryant is innocent. And I suspect he was just as convinced, before the trial had come to and end, perhaps even before it had started, that Morse was guilty.
Say what you will about Jeremy Morse, but whatever his sins he was entitled to a fair trial before an unbiased jury of his peers. I don’t think he got one.
— Jack Dunphy is an officer in the Los Angeles Police Department. “Jack Dunphy” is the author’s nom de cyber. The opinions expressed are his own and almost certainly do not reflect those of the LAPD management.