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judge larry fidler

The supervising judge of Los Angeles Superior Court in 1999, Fidler presided over all Rampart-related writs of habeas corpus petitions filed by the District Attorney's office and defense lawyers to overturn previous criminal convictions. The Court overturned nearly 100 such cases based on the revelations of Raphael Perez. FRONTLINE interviewed Fidler on February 7, 2001
The Ovando Case

Were you directly involved in the Ovando habeas corpus writ?

Yes, that was my case. . . .

So what is your reaction, as a judge who's been doing this a long time, to the idea that a guy has been dropped into the prison for 23 years, apparently for all the wrong reasons?

Well, it's horrifying. I mean, the purpose of the criminal justice system is to see that justice is done, to see that the law is followed equally to all people. Especially when you're a criminal judge . . . the purpose . . . is to make sure that you don't put any innocent people in prison. . . .

All right. You believe it, you're up for it. You want to get this guy out of prison.

Well, it's not a matter of believing it or not believing it. If a district attorney comes to you and says, "We've lost confidence in a case, we have investigated the matter, we believe we have someone improperly imprisoned," of course, as a judge, you're upset that that case has gotten through the system. It was the allegations in that case which were so serious. . .

Perez's statements were bad enough. They basically had the shooting going on. As I recall it, it was alleged to have been accidental, although there were factors that dealt with the facts of the case themselves that certainly were troubling. But Ovando's statement was horrific. It basically alleged attempted murder, that they had attempted to kill him. That's what his statement said.

Do you ever remember any case like this, ever, in your entire time?

No.

Perez's Allegations

And his other allegations, in addition to Ovando--what's your reaction to those as you hear about them?

Well, initially when Perez came out with all his allegations, at that point nobody had really questioned his credibility, although clearly he was cutting a deal for himself. And therefore, his allegations, given the possibility that they were true, were extremely troubling. . . .

Perez's credibility is now turning out to be a very large question. I'm not saying he's credible, I'm not saying he's not credible. But there have been allegations. The district attorney took Perez's statements. Perez named a specific number of cases that he could recall. He named defendants or incidents that they were able to match up. The district attorney attempted to interview the defendants who he named as having been unjustly imprisoned, that either evidence was planted or there was tainted testimony. The district attorney attempted to corroborate that information.

When they had corroborated it to their satisfaction, they took the unusual tack of bringing their own writs of habeas corpus, which normally are brought by the defendant, not by the prosecutor. If they had an attorney, they would notify defense counsel and said, "We've done an investigation. We have information that your client may be innocent. We've lost confidence." And those are really the key words. "We've lost confidence in the conviction, and we wish to bring a writ of habeas corpus, have the court grant it, release the individual." And that's what happened in some 100 cases.

What are your expectations about the extent, the impact, the meaning of these events?

[At the time, because of] the nature of the allegations, it rocked everybody back on their heels. . . . Everyone was extremely upset by the allegations as to how all these innocent people could have been imprisoned, how they could have got through the system.

Again, because Perez's credibility at that point wasn't in serious question, there was a belief [that other officers he implicated] would be arrested and indicted, and that, in order to mitigate their punishment, those officers would then cooperate, as Perez did. . . . Nobody knew how far it would go--whether it would remain within the CRASH unit at Rampart, or whether it would go outside that unit, outside that division, and somehow this would just have a rolling stone effect. It would just go along, go along, get bigger and bigger and bigger. And of course, that has not happened. . . .

[What was the impact when Perez's allegations were made public?]

Once his allegations became public, it was front-page news every single day. And clearly, it had an impact on the criminal justice system. As soon as the story broke, defense lawyers would argue in almost every case that they possibly could make an allegation, whether or not Rampart was directly involved, "You see what the officers in Rampart did and, therefore, they might have done it in this case. Therefore, you should acquit." That was the standard, if you will, the battle cry in almost every case. There certainly was anecdotal evidence that that was working in a lot of cases. . . . The facts did not appear to be in dispute, but the defense counsel would argue Rampart and the matter would result in a hung jury or in acquittal.

That was for a short period of time, when this story was literally on the front page. While the argument clearly is still being made, I don't think there is as much evidence that . . . merely saying "Rampart" is necessarily going to have an effect on the jury. . . .

Help me understand the impact something like that has on the civil rights bar. . . .

Well, what this problem did, it allowed everyone who didn't like the system to say, "Aha, I told you so, and I've been telling you so for years. And now I have proof. It's not my allegation, it's not my word, I have proof. And, therefore, everything I've been saying is true. . . . We've always told you the system is corrupt. It only favors the prosecution or the police. We've proven it, because Officer Perez has made these allegations."

And that did seem to be true.

If you gave Perez credibility, there are certain aspects of it that may have been true. If you take the proposition that any one person is imprisoned because of some corruptness anywhere in the system, it's a major problem. One is bad enough. As soon as you start to add to the numbers, you start multiplying, and it gets worse and worse and worse. But again, it depended upon Perez's credibility if you have one rogue cop, if you have a small group of rogue cops, if you have a large group of rogue cops, if you have a huge corruption problem in the police department. And nobody knew where it was going. We still don't know. The matter is still ongoing, but there have been developments since it first broke. . . .

Were you uneasy almost from the beginning about hanging so much on the word of one police officer?

Well, you have to make a determination as a judicial officer. If you're judging credibility, then anytime you're dealing with one person's statement, you're looking for corroboration. You're trying to decide, especially where the person has the motivation to be other than truthful, which is to benefit himself by getting fewer years in prison. But in this case--which is why it was so unusual--you had the prosecutors coming in and saying, "We've lost faith in these convictions." Basically, we have a problem. . .

Now, that is not a big or major stretch for a judge, as far as I'm concerned. When the prosecutor gets up and says, "I don't want this conviction to stand anymore because here are the facts. And the objective facts are that your arresting officer says, 'I did the wrong thing.'" There's not that much investigation that a bench officer needs to do at that point in that case. It has pretty much put the case in such a position that you can no longer proceed.

Perez's Credibility

How about the harder stretch--which is, how can he pick some cases as bogus and we believe him, and in other cases, he says that they are righteous, but the defendant comes forward and says, "Baloney, I'm on the other side like everybody else." How do you decide?

Well, you have to judge credibility in that case. And I've only had one case [where] Perez came in and testified. I did not have to resolve his credibility, because there were procedural deficiencies in the defendant's case, and that writ was denied on those grounds. I never reached the issue of his credibility. But indeed, I did watch him and other people testify 180 degrees differently. It's like any time you're judging a matter as opposed to overseeing a jury trial, when you have to resolve credibility--that's the hardest part of judging. . . . You listen to the people, you judge their demeanor. You look at the facts. You look at motivation, and you do your best that you can as a human being with legal training to arrive at a result. . . .

Give me a sense of Ray Perez in your courtroom.

. . . My only comment would be in watching him testify. He is a very persuasive witness. I'm not saying he's truthful. I'm saying he's a very persuasive witness. And when this story first broke, in talking to other judges, those that knew Perez and had seen him testify--he was fairly well known because he did a lot of cases and testified in a lot of cases. Everyone agrees that he was a very smooth, very persuasive witness. . . . If he just came in and testified and you didn't know anything bad about him, I don't think he'd have much difficulty persuading you that he was telling you the truth.

And in an awful lot of the cases, it really was his word. It's kind of "He said/she said," and the "he" is the police officer in this case, right?

Well, basically what most of the writs turn out to be is that Perez alleges misconduct on his behalf and sometimes other police officers. The corroboration is, for the most part, the defendant and/or his or her co-defendants saying, "That's right, we didn't do it. We're absolutely innocent, and we pled because we were facing a lot of years," or whatever, assuming that it was a plea, as most of the cases were. That's what you have. The corroboration is the defendant saying, "Yes, he says he's lying, and we agree that he is lying. He's telling the truth when he says that he was not telling the truth."

Why do you think, Your Honor, that more police officers didn't come forward?

Well, you have to ask either there's no facts there--is Perez lying? I don't know. Those are matters that need to be resolved. There are lots of reasons why perhaps it didn't happen. But basically, Perez's credibility is now turning out to be a very large question. I'm not saying he's credible, I'm not saying he's not credible. But there have been allegations. It has been public knowledge for some time now that he has allegedly made comments while in prison, post-making his statements, that he can take care of any police officer he wants to if he doesn't like them. The credibility of those statements has not yet been tested, but those are out there. . . .

So what's your analysis of what this was all about? Was this a tempest in a teapot?

I don't know. I have no idea whether there is a huge scandal that has yet to be fully discovered, or whether there's a small scandal involving one or perhaps a few people, wherein one of those people made false allegations in an attempt to mitigate his own problems. I have no idea. Unless this case plays out fully and there are more arrests or indictments or other witnesses come forward, I doubt that it's going to go a whole lot deeper than it has now.

There's always the possibility that, at some point, if there are facts there and something more is discovered, then it breaks free again. But right now, I don't want to say it's out of steam. I would say it has certainly slowed down, because without Perez, there's not a whole lot of momentum going forward.

So what has happened? In addition to his credibility, maybe the age-old code of silence kicks in. Everybody circles the wagons and protects each other.

Anything's possible. It's been my experience--I taught at the police academy for ten years, I taught at the sheriff's academy for ten years-- the vast majority of police officers are good people who want to do the right thing. And I don't think they're going to stand still for people planting evidence. That's my personal belief. . . . When you say "code of silence," that's a possibility.

Another possibility is that the facts don't exist as Perez alleges they are, and there's nothing for anyone to come forward to testify to. We don't know. . . . Nobody knows whether what he says is as bad as it appears to be, or whether it ever existed in the first place. These are all matters that we're awaiting an open trial, further corroboration. And right now, certainly that just hasn't happened. That doesn't mean it's not true; it doesn't mean it is true. . . .

Gangsta Millionaires

. . . Yesterday we met with two attorneys who had two clients [who had been released based on Perez's statements.] One client received $15 million [in a civil settlement], another attorney has had 60 clients who . . . I think his total was $10.5 million for his clients now. What's that all about?

. . . On one hand, if someone has been falsely imprisoned on false testimony, on false evidence, what is their time in prison worth? You set a figure on that. I don't think I can. On the other hand, if somebody truly did it and they're now free because either the person who says they didn't do it is perhaps not credible, or there's simply a problem with the case. . . you may well have people who have been let free who are actually guilty. Not only are they let free, but they now profit monetarily to a degree that is simply not imaginable--a lot of millionaires running around. . . .

The bottom line is that a lot of the people, quite frankly, who have been let free--and again, it doesn't make any difference if you're the worst person in the world, that is not an excuse for putting you in prison on a case where you didn't do anything--but most of these people. . . have extensive criminal backgrounds. A lot of these people are not nice people. They're stone-cold criminals. They're gang members who have killed people, who have committed violent crimes. That's just the reality of what is. . . . Some of them are quite serious and violent criminals who you would expect, given any experience in the criminal justice system, will violate the laws once again, and end up back in prison again. But that's on a case-by-case determination.

And for now, they're millionaires.

Yes, some are. . . .

Legacy of Rodney King

Help me understand [the impact of Rodney King on the] Ray Perez [incident.]

What we have is you have two very public incidents of alleged police misconduct. The Rodney King case certainly punched a lot of buttons, especially in the minority community, who have made allegations about police misconduct and use of force. That case gave them the support they needed to bolster their allegations, and it certainly split the city apart. We eventually had the riots when initially the officers were acquitted in state court. It touched on the divide that exists in the community. And certainly, it's always been a sore spot.

I've lived in this city my entire life, 54 years. And for most of that time, in my estimation as a citizen, the police have been absolutely revered. L.A.P.D. is, or was, a nationally revered police force. And it is still highly thought of by the majority of the citizens in Los Angeles, if you look at any poll,. But those who do not think highly of L.A.P.D. have just as strong an opinion on the other side. You have these forces in society clashing with each other. And when these incidents happen, it just brings it right to the surface.

There are those who say, "I told you so, you wouldn't listen to me, here's the proof." And others say, "Well, I don't think it goes anywhere beyond . . . if it's true, it only indicates there's a problem in this one limited area." You're going to have that conflict, probably for a good long time. I don't think it's just going to go away.

And the role of race in this?

Well, I'm not an expert on race relations. I've always said that anyone who denies that racism exists in society is simply burying their head. Clearly we have problems with race. Race is an issue that does exist, and there are strong feelings in the various minority communities concerning L.A.P.D. When these incidents happen, it fuels their beliefs, and it just sets off the dialogue again and the feelings. The detractors on one hand, and the supporters of the police department on the other hand, they just go at it publicly once again. And you have this very spirited debate that sometimes goes beyond mere words. . .

Impact of Rampart

I believe that in most things that turn out to be bad, you can find some good. No matter where Rampart goes, whether it ends here or whether it continues to develop into a bigger story, something positive has come from Rampart in the way that the criminal justice system will do and is doing business, because in the majority of these cases, we found out that they were guilty pleas. And if you take Perez as being credible, you have an enormous number of people who pled guilty when they were innocent.

Now the reasons that are given are many--that because of the harsh sentencing laws that we have in California, people felt obligated to take any plea other than the maximum, for whatever reason. But we certainly--we, being the criminal justice system--are examining right now . . . there are committees that the Superior Court has formed, and they're studying the problem of how we take guilty pleas. . . along with the re-looking at how discovery is done on police personnel records.

The police department and the city have candidly admitted that they have a problem with those, in the sense that they're not sure they get all the records that defendants are entitled to. And . . . there are legal questions over exculpatory material that defendants are entitled to, how you do it, when you do it. Those are matters that . . . we're trying to look at. So no matter whatever happens with Rampart, there's been a positive impact in the system because of it. At least we will be able to claim that as a good, despite whatever bad took place.


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