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Tuesday, November 28, 2000


Murder Charge Dropped in Rampart-Tainted Case

Courts: Defendant's rights were violated at hearing, commissioner

finds. A key witness had flip-flopped on claims that he was coerced into identifying suspect.

By MATT LAIT and SCOTT GLOVER, Times Staff Writers



A Los Angeles Superior Court commissioner Monday dismissed a murder charge

 in a case tainted by allegations of misconduct by officers in the LAPD's

 scandal-plagued Rampart Division.  Commissioner Michael G. Price threw out the murder charge against Jose Luis Oliverria after determining that the man's constitutional rights were violated at his preliminary hearing. Price cited the failure of hearing Judge Glenette Blackwell to, among other things, allow testimony regarding the murder weapon's being discovered in the possession of another man. The commissioner also was critical of prosecutors' failure to turn over to the defense a tape-recorded interview with the key witness. Prosecutors said they did not know at the time that the tape existed.

 Even before the dismissal, the prosecution's case was in trouble.

Evelio "Rudy" Carrillo, the alleged eyewitness to the killing, told The Times last spring that Los Angeles Police Department officers coerced him into

 falsely identifying Oliverria as the killer. After being arrested on an unrelated rape charge in May, Carrillo recanted his allegation against the officers. But he since has told a defense lawyer that the claim was true.

 As a result of Carrillo's flip-flops, Deputy Dist. Atty. Gretchen Ford

 said she would not be able to use him as a witness.

 "We have little other evidence of the murder," Ford said in court Monday.

 Although Ford intends to proceed on a robbery case against Oliverria, she

 said it is unlikely that the murder charge will be refiled.


Deputy Public Defender Alec Henderson, who represents Oliverria, praised

 Price's ruling on the murder charge.

 He said the remaining counts regarding the alleged theft of $1 and a

 six-pack of beer are "very weak."

 The dismissal of the charge against Oliverria is at least the second

 murder case dropped amid allegations of misconduct by current or former

Rampart Division officers. Prosecutors in the San Fernando Valley in August

 dropped a murder charge after their only eyewitness said he was pressured into

 identifying the defendant by an LAPD sergeant, who since has been

 convicted of crimes stemming from the Rampart corruption scandal.

 The case against Oliverria had problems from the start. In March, LAPD

 Det. John Curiel testified at length about his role in the investigation of

 the Dec. 4, 1998, slaying of 19-year-old Wilber Escobar.

 Curiel, then assigned to the Rampart Division's homicide squad,

 testified that he went to the hospital on the night of the shooting, met the dead

 man's relatives and viewed the body. "He was wrapped in a white sheet and white plastic and had a tag on his toe," Curiel testified under questioning from the prosecution. "I saw a bullet hole . . . in his left side toward the back."

 Detective Said He Confused 2 Cases But under cross-examination by Henderson, Curiel acknowledged that he was not even working on the night in question.

 Curiel told The Times in interviews this spring that he had simply

 confused the Escobar homicide with a similar case, though he could not remember

 which one. Curiel is "either the biggest idiot that ever lived, or he's a lying

 perjurer," Henderson charged at a court hearing last week in which he was

 arguing to have the charges against Oliverria dropped.

 Despite the detective's false testimony, Blackwell, who since has retired

 from the bench, allowed the case against Oliverria to go forward.

 A month later, The Times found and interviewed Carrillo, ostensibly the

 prosecution's star witness.

 Carrillo, who had been ducking prosecutors for months, told The Times

 that he initially told officers that he knew nothing about the unsolved

 slaying at the corner of Washington Boulevard and New England Avenue.

 Nonetheless, he said officers showed him a "six-pack" photo array that

 contained a picture of Oliverria. He said the picture had a circle

 around it. The officers, he said, "were trying to give me a hint . . . saying that

 was him, you know, to pick him out."

 Carrillo, who provided The Times with a sworn declaration, said the

 officers implied that if he did not cooperate he might be prosecuted

for other unsolved crimes.

 Each of the officers involved has denied any wrongdoing in the case. An

 LAPD official said two officers and Curiel remain the subjects of an

 internal affairs probe.

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