Jurors question deputies' testimony
Panelists' concerns over what they see as 'fabrications' spur an internal affairs investigation into law enforcement actions and testimony in a Compton weapons case.
By Jack Leonard, Los Angeles Times
September 18, 2011, 8:33 p.m.
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Jurors said a video of the arrest and inconsistent testimony from deputies left them no choice earlier this month but to vote for acquittal. The five jurors who spoke to The Times said authorities should investigate the deputies from the sheriff's anti-gang-unit who were involved in the case.
"These were not minor inconsistencies…. These were outright fabrications," said juror Ted Rhodes, 28, a construction project manager. "It'll be an injustice … if someone isn't held accountable."
For all the breakthroughs in DNA and other forensic evidence, the criminal justice system still depends heavily on the honesty and accuracy of law enforcement officers. In recent years, the age-old defense strategy of attacking the credibility of police has been aided by the proliferation of security surveillance and cellphone cameras, which have given bystanders the ability to record officers' encounters with suspects.
Still, it is rare for jurors to publicly say they believe law enforcement officers lied under oath.
In response to questions from The Times, the Sheriff's Department conducted a reenactment of the arrest with one of the deputies to determine whether his trial testimony was credible. Afterward, sheriff's officials said they concluded that the deputies had told the truth and noted that prosecutors had previously come to the same conclusion.
"Yes, there are inconsistencies. Do the inconsistencies rise to the level of malice and perjury? No," said Sheriff's Capt. Bob Rifkin, who oversees the department's anti-gang unit. "I'm confident that they're telling the truth."
Nevertheless, he said the department is taking the jurors' concerns seriously and will launch an internal affairs investigation.
The case began when sheriff's deputies entered the side yard of a South L.A. house, the site of a party, late on May 20 and arrested two men on suspicion of possessing concealed weapons.
One of the men was David Gipson, 19, who authorities said had juvenile convictions for burglary and robbery.
At a preliminary hearing nearly three weeks later, Deputy Levi Belville testified that he saw Gipson in the side yard run and toss a loaded revolver onto the roof of a detached garage. The deputy said he ordered Gipson to stop and that the suspect walked back to Belville, who then detained him.
Gipson's attorney, Alla Eksler, said her client declared his innocence and yelled in the courtroom, "Fingerprint the gun!" The revolver was never fingerprinted, Eksler said.
After the hearing, Eksler learned there was a video of the arrest that had been shot by a guest at the party.
The footage did not show Gipson running, tossing a gun or walking back to the deputies to be detained. Instead, the grainy video showed deputies arriving and walking past Gipson, who was standing against a wall of the house near the rear of the yard. One of the deputies, Raul Ibarra, returned to Gipson and escorted him to the back of the yard.
After the video surfaced, Belville visited the scene of the arrest with a prosecutor to explain what had happened, according to court records. He said Gipson had already thrown the gun by the time the video showed him standing against the wall. By that point, Belville said, he had gone to recover the weapon and told his partner, Ibarra, to grab Gipson. Ibarra confirmed the account.
Belville later said the video must have been edited, but an expert consulted by the district attorney's office determined that it had not been.
Jurors said they did not find Belville's trial testimony credible and believed he changed his account of the arrest after being confronted with the video. They also questioned why a deputy with more than 10 years' experience would walk past a man who had just thrown a gun without immediately detaining him or warning colleagues.
Jurors cited other inconsistencies beyond the video.
Among them was Belville's earlier testimony that he had seen another deputy use a data terminal in their patrol car to check whether the recovered handgun was registered. Sheriff's records showed that none of the deputies' units had been used to make such a check.
The arrest report, written by Deputy Curtis Brown, indicated that Brown and the other deputies had seen Gipson with a weapon, using the word "we" to describe their observations of the suspect. During the trial, however, only Belville testified that he had seen Gipson with a gun. Brown and two other deputies at the scene testified that they had not.
"We just thought it was one lie after another," said juror Cynthia Reyes, 29, who is unemployed.
Some jurors criticized the district attorney's office.
"Why … did they go along with this case and waste taxpayer money … and risk imprisoning an innocent person when the evidence was so clear?" asked David Song, 32, a corporate spokesman who served as jury foreman.
District attorney's spokeswoman Sandi Gibbons said prosecutors pressed ahead with the case after hearing deputies explain their actions while viewing a slowed version of the footage.
"We believe that the video did not contradict the officers' testimony," she said.
Belville, Ibarra and Brown all declined to comment.
Rifkin, the sheriff's captain, said the deputies had made errors that will be addressed with additional training but that their actions were not criminal.
He said Belville, now a detective, had thought the other deputies saw Gipson toss the gun and assumed they would detain him. Gipson, he said, had walked over to the wall to blend in with others at the party while Belville headed to the rear of the property to recover the gun.
The deputies, he said, cut corners with their report writing and should each have written what they had seen, rather than rely on one person to write a single report. On the stand, they made honest errors, Rifkin said.
"We have things that we could have done better, but it wasn't perjury," Rifkin said.
Gipson, who spent more than a month in jail, disagreed, describing himself as a victim of police misconduct.
"I never thought an officer would lie," he said.
Times staff writer Robert Faturechi contributed to this report.
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