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LAPD Corruption Trial Winds Down

Updated:
LOS ANGELES (AP) — In court, Deputy District Attorney Laura Laesecke is usually an ally of the police and an enemy of gang members who terrorize the city's streets.

On Monday, her role was reversed: Laesecke urged jurors to embrace the testimony of gang members who linked four police officers to the worst corruption scandal in the Police Department's history.

Laesecke told the Superior Court jury to realize that ``putting on a uniform doesn't automatically make someone trustworthy and honest.''

She spent two hours summing up her case and said she would have more to say Tuesday. Defense attorneys will then deliver their arguments before the case is submitted to the jury late Tuesday or early Wednesday.

Sgts. Edward Ortiz and Brian Liddy and Officers Michael Buchanan and Paul Harper are accused of falsifying reports to frame innocent people.

The probe of the Rampart station's elite gang-fighting unit has led to the dismissal of 100 tainted criminal cases. The city attorney's office on Monday agreed to pay $10.9 million to settle 29 lawsuits connected to the scandal, and some estimates say it could cost the city $125 million in damage settlements.

A package of reforms, agreed to by city and federal officials after weeks of negotiations, includes the appointment of an independent monitor who will be charged with overseeing the LAPD for five years.

The prosecution began its closing arguments Monday without ever calling ex-officer Rafael Perez, who turned informant in exchange for leniency after he was caught stealing $1 million worth of cocaine from a police evidence room.

Perez was expected to be the prosecution's star witness until he demanded immunity from recent murder allegations made by an ex-lover. Without him, the case against the four officers has appeared weak.

In two weeks of testimony, prosecutors presented a parade of gang members with credibility problems and a parade of police officers who seemed to have collective amnesia. There were a few civilian witnesses whose memory of events was as bad as that of the officers.

The four officers face charges that stem from three cases between March 1996 and April 1998 in which they are alleged to have framed innocent people.

In one incident, an officer is accused of planting a gun on a gang member. In another, an officer allegedly rubbed a gun on a suspect's hand to get his fingerprints and frame him. In the third case, prosecutors claim officers fabricated a story about gang members trying to run them down in order to arrest them.

``You have seen how dishonest cops can manipulate the system and twist the truth so it is unrecognizable,'' Laesecke said. ``Somewhere along the line these defendants lost their moral compass. They began to think of themselves as above the law.''

Defense team members argued that prosecutors had framed their clients much like the Rampart unit had allegedly framed gang members.

``It's not that they were unprepared. It's that for political reasons they took four innocent people and subjected them to the potential loss of their liberty,'' lead defense attorney Barry Levin said.

The first day of final arguments began after the judge instructed the jury to consider the case of each officer individually, as if there were four separate trials.

The defense called only the four defendants and one accident reconstruction expert during its one-week presentation. The final defense witness, Ortiz, said that during his tenure in the unit, officers handled all cases the same way and did not single out gang members for tougher treatment.

But Laesecke asked jurors to trust gang members who testified against the police.

``Yes, gangs are bad,'' she said. ``Gang members may scare you. What should scare you even more is dishonest cops.''

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