It used to be a joke, then a lament and now it’s a sad cliché.
In Los Angeles, when it comes to high-profile cases involving sex,
race or celebrity, the Los Angeles District Attorney can’t seem to win
the big ones.
Starting with the acquittal of director Jon Landis’ case in the 1987
“Twilight Zone: The Movie” trial, L.A.’s district attorney has lost one
big case after another. In 1990, it was the McMartin Preschool
molestation case in which the prosecution, despite putting on the
longest and most expensive trial in American history, never convicted
anyone of anything.
In 1992, in the Rodney King beating incident, the D.A.’s office
blithely let the case be moved to suburban Simi Valley where the four
police officers accused of beating King were acquitted. The LAPD wasn’t
prepared to handle disturbances that followed and large parts of the
city were looted and burned.
In 1994, in the first trial of Lyle and Erik Menendez, defense
attorney Leslie Abramson managed to stave off a conviction with her
passionate homosexual incest “abuse excuse.”
In 1995, a sympathetic jury acquitted O.J. Simpson of the murder of
his ex-wife Nicole Brown and her friend Ron Goldman on grounds that Mark
Fuhrman was a racist and the glove didn’t fit.
Now the D.A. has to deal with yet another potentially embarrassing
case — the upcoming trial of former Symbionese Liberation Army foot
soldier Kathleen Soliah — also known as Sara Jane Olson — charged with
trying to blow up two LAPD patrol cars with pipe bombs back in 1975.
“I don’t know who is convincing [Los Angeles District Attorney Gil]
Garcetti that this case has merit,” says Sterling Norris, a hard-line,
old-school Los Angeles career prosecutor. But when it comes to Soliah,
“there is no case. All the eyewitnesses are dead. There are no prints.”
The only alleged witness they have, says Norris, is a patrol officer who
supposedly identified Soliah at the crime scene, but went on disability
and kept it to himself.
“Who is going to believe [that an officer remembers seeing Soliah 25
years ago] and never told anyone about it?” asked Norris.
If Soliah is going to be tried, it shouldn’t be for a bungled car
bombing attempt with no witnesses in a case with statute of limitation
problems, says Norris. In the Carmichael (Sacramento) Crocker Bank
branch robbery and murder, on the other hand, “there is an eyewitness
that puts Soliah at the scene. That’s the case you ought to file.
There’s no statute of limitations [in murder cases.] As soon as Soliah
was arrested, the district attorney should have been on the line,
telling the [Sacramento D.A.], ‘Get yourself a grand jury. Indict her.
She’s all yours.’ An experienced prosecutor wouldn’t take on a case like
But that is what is wrong with Garcetti, says Norris, who once
unsuccessfully ran against him for D.A. — the man has no trial
“He’s tried less than five cases. The only way to get experience is
to try cases. That’s where you learn,” said Norris. “‘This is a case.
This is not a case. This is a witness. This is not a witness.’
Prosecutorial judgment is not something you can read about. You have to
do it.” Garcetti declined to comment for this story.
According to Norris, 20 years ago the trial attorneys who used to run
the Los Angeles District Attorney’s Office were replaced by
administrators who are so afraid that if they put their best trial
attorney on a high profile case that attorney would become famous and
run against them. In 1972, Vince Bugliosi, the fiery and intense Manson
case prosecutor, ran against his boss, District Attorney Joe Busch.
Bugliosi nearly won the election, which so scared Busch that ever since
then in Los Angeles, whenever there’s a high-profile case to be tried,
the D.A. either appoints a friend who won’t run against him or someone
too inexperienced to run a credible campaign.
That’s what happened in the Twilight Zone case in 1987. At the time,
Garcetti was chief deputy under District Attorney Ira Reiner. Garcetti
appointed his friend, Lea Purwin D’Agostino, to prosecute Jon Landis.
Five years previously, while filming a tendentious morality tale about
racial and ethnic bigotry, Landis had put a low-flying helicopter in the
path of special effects explosions. The helicopter lost its tail rotor
and crashed on top of actor Vic Morrow and two child actors, killing
As it was uncontested that the two children, one aged six and the
other seven, were on the set illegally at 2 a.m. without a social worker
present, conviction seemed a foregone conclusion. But the over-emotional
D’Agostino, also known as “the Dragon Lady,” had so much trouble
concealing her contempt for the otherwise unsympathetic Landis that he
came across a victim himself and the jury acquitted him.
Garcetti appointed another inexperienced attorney, Lael Rubin, to
prosecute the defendants in the McMartin Pre-School molestation case.
After an 18-month preliminary hearing followed by the longest trial in
American history, no one was convicted of any crime — which actually
was the most desirable outcome possible, given that the case never
should have been filed in the first place.
The woman who made the first molestation charge against McMartin was
seriously disturbed and later died of alcoholism, but not before also
claiming that an AWOL Marine had sodomized the family dog. According to
other allegations pulled out of the children by an agenda-driven social
worker, children had been molested in hot air balloons, in speedboats,
in car washes. Babies had been allegedly cut up on the altars of local
churches; bodies had been dug up in order to be stabbed and reburied,
and horses had their heads cut off with swords.
Although a more experienced or less politically correct prosecutor
wouldn’t have taken such accusations seriously, the McMartin prosecutors
took the attitude that the charges were too horrible not to be true. In
their minds, they were prosecuting a case of child pornography,
witchcraft, and organized molestation on a national scale. Pedophile
businessmen were said to be flying into town in Lear jets, molesting
children during the mid-day and then returning home in time for their
In the meantime, the defendants lost their homes, their jobs and
reputations. Some of them spent years in jail. The case ended up costing
the taxpayers of Los Angeles $15 million. Copycat accusations spread
across the country and around the world. And in the end, there was no
credible proof that anyone at McMartin had ever done anything.
In the O.J. Simpson case, says Norris, the District Attorney made two
huge mistakes. Without much forethought, he held the initial preliminary
hearing downtown, thus guaranteeing that the case would be tried before
largely minority jurors, instead of on the much wealthier and whiter
west side where the crime had actually occurred.
Garcetti’s other big mistake, says Norris, was to bring O.J. in for
questioning and then let him go. That created doubt, raised hope among
those inclined toward Simpson and was directly responsible for the
famous low-speed freeway chase, which introduced race into what had
previously been a fairly simple murder case.
The day that Simpson was supposed to surrender, Garcetti held a news
conference, recalls Norris.
“Garcetti was wearing his finest suit. He was standing on the stage,
waiting for the guest of honor,” said Norris. “Simpson was looking at
two murder counts. Is he just going to come in and surrender? I think
not. We had him in custody (when he was first questioned about the
case). We had all kinds of probable cause.”
But if you let someone go and then go out and try to re-arrest him it
raises all kinds of doubt, said Norris. Furthermore, it introduced what
Norris calls “racial signifiers” into the case.
“They were chasing him down the freeway, a black man being chased by
That image, he said, immediately pushed all sorts of buttons in the
minds of potential minority jurors, and ended up changing the whole
complexion of the case.
The prospects for conviction were further damaged when the liberal
prosecutor, Marcia Clark, under the mistaken impression that she was
loved by black women for her racial sensitivity, enthusiastically
cooperated with Simpson attorney Johnnie Cochran to seat a jury composed
in large part of sympathetic black women, thus guaranteeing that Simpson
In the current Rampart Division scandal — involving charges that
members of the LAPD anti-gang C.R.A.S.H. unit shot unarmed defendants,
beat them up, planted guns and committed perjury against them in court
— Garcetti has been asking judges to overturn previous convictions
without even arguing the evidence in court, says Norris. Rogue cop
Rafael Perez, now turned police informer, has “never seen the light of
day in a courtroom. He has never been cross-examined. Is he a credible
witness? When someone is looking at 35 years he will give up his
Perez testified that he and his partner shot 18th Street gang member
Javier Volando, planted a gun on him and then testified against him in
court. Volando, who was permanently crippled in the attack, served three
years of a 23-year sentence until a judge overturned his conviction last
year. What is “interesting” in that case, says Norris, is that Volando
“never told his own attorney that it wasn’t his gun. Detectives went up
to talk to him twice in jail. And he still didn’t say it wasn’t his gun
until they told him the gun had been planted, then he says, ‘Oh yeah,
that’s not my gun.’ I’m surprised the judge is accepting [these requests
to overturn convictions] carte blanche.” Thirty-two convictions
have been overturned so far.
Despite the L.A. District Attorney’s problem with high profile cases,
it is by no means bungling all its cases. It still has a conviction rate
over ninety percent.
The D.A. did manage to convict Mikail Markhasev of shooting Ennis
Cosby, son of entertainer Bill Cosby, on Mulholland Drive in 1997. But
“the Cosby case is going to be reversed,” says Norris, “though it will
happen after the election. [The defense] has a real good habeas corpus
issue. There was a witness in the case who didn’t want the defense to
know where he was. The D.A. told the defense that he had been released
from jail and went back to Texas and they couldn’t find him. The D.A.
knew he was in jail.”
Furthermore, says Norris, the D.A. relied on a handwritten
confessional letter found in Markhasev’s cell. “Now there’s an inmate
who has confessed, ‘I wrote that.’ How can an appellate court not
reverse when another inmate is confessing, ‘Yeah, I wrote that. I put it
in his cell.’?”
Later this year the trial of Symbionese Liberation Army soldier
will come up in Los Angeles, and the District Attorney is preparing to
lose another big one.
How do we know?
The D.A.’s office fought tooth and nail to keep TV cameras out of the
courtroom even though the defense didn’t object. The prosecution said
the reason was that the trial would be a virtual workshop in bomb
building. But, as L.A. Times columnist Patt Morrison pointed out last
month, any 13-year-old can find out all he needs to know about bombs on
the Internet with just a few “mouse clicks.”
So what’s the real reason the prosecution opposes TV cameras?
“This is an old case, tricky to prosecute, and hung like an albatross
around the neck of a D.A.’s office already bruised and beaten up over
high-profile cases,” says Morrison. The “last thing it needs” is the
public ridicule that a televised loss would inspire.
In the meantime, a primary election is coming up in March, which,
despite everything, says Norris, Garcetti is “a shoo-in to win. He has a
million dollars in his re-election account. O.J. has been forgotten. I
could even write his campaign ads for him. ‘Crime is down. Who is
responsible? Here I am — Gil Garcetti.'”
Paul Ciotti is a Los Angeles-based