08:15 AM PDT on Thursday, June 28, 2007
As a San Bernardino County jury begins weighing a grainy videotape and hours of testimony in the case of a former deputy accused of shooting an unarmed Iraq war veteran, legal experts say jurors sometimes find it difficult to believe an officer would harm someone for no reason.
Closing arguments wrapped up Wednesday in the monthlong trial of Ivory J. Webb Jr., the first time in San Bernardino County history that a sheriff's deputy has been prosecuted for an on-duty shooting.
Webb is charged with attempted voluntary manslaughter and firearm assault charges stemming from the January 2006 incident where he shot and wounded Elio Carrion, a U.S. Air Force senior airman.
Jurors could convict Webb of one or the other, but not both. Or, they may find him not guilty if they believe the shooting was a case of justified self defense.
Legal experts for more than a year have said the video taken by a bystander will prove key in whether Webb acted criminally when he shot three times after the brief high-speed chase through Chino.
The shooting took place in a matter of seconds and jurors must piece together what happened before and after the shots to help decide whether Webb is guilty, said Laurie Levenson, a law professor at Loyola Law School in Los Angeles and a former federal prosecutor who has closely followed the case.
Levenson said the video is important evidence but not enough alone for a conviction.
"No one thinks this video tells the whole story," said Levenson, who has reviewed the video more than two dozen times. "The jury has to reconstruct everything that is not on the video. This is like getting a book, but only every other chapter."
In the years since the beating of Rodney King by Los Angeles police officers, the public has become more sophisticated in evaluating videotaped events, Levenson said.
"Rodney King really opened prosecutors' eyes, and the community's eyes, about how difficult these cases are," Levenson said.
Santa Clara County Deputy District Attorney Lane Liroff prosecuted that county's first homicide case against a peace officer in 35 years. He said Wednesday that prosecutors face an uphill battle in winning a conviction.
"Jurors when faced with a law enforcement officer involved in a shooting in the line of duty find it very difficult to convict," said Liroff, who lost a 2005 case against Mike Walker, an officer with the state's Bureau of Narcotic Enforcement.
"They don't want to second-guess them, and fear that blood of future officers will be on them."
But the fear of a loss in court should not deter prosecutors from pursuing police misconduct cases, Liroff said.
"It is terribly important that DAs don't use that as an excuse to not hold law enforcement officers accountable," he said. "That means some cases just have to be tried. It is a tough thing to do. I know that personally."
While each case is different, Liroff's post-trial interviews with jurors might give an indication of the mindset of the jury deliberating the case against Webb.
"They just kept saying they wanted something more. And boy did I have a strong case," Liroff said. "It wasn't what they said, so much as the difficulty they had in coming to the conclusion that a law enforcement officer can screw up and make a mistake."
Dennis Stout, a former San Bernardino County district attorney, said the jury is faced with a case where there is no rational reason for Webb's actions.
With that, Stout said, "It is hard for more people to believe a police officer would shoot someone for no reason."
San Bernardino County District Attorney Michael Ramos was at the California District Attorneys Association summer conference in Napa this week and was not available for comment.
Last year, when charges against Webb were announced, Ramos said the tape showing the shooting played a key role in the decision to prosecute.
Since 2000, the district attorney's office has reviewed more than 120 officer-involved shootings. Apart from the Webb case, four of those were deemed unjustified, but no charges were filed because the office had insufficient evidence to prove a crime had been committed, said Mike Risley, a former assistant district attorney.
When the charges were filed against Webb last year, Risley, who has since retired, said that both the videotape and the fact that prosecutors had a surviving victim made the case different from the others.
Bill Abernathie, president of the San Bernardino County Safety Employee Benefits Association, the union representing sheriff's deputies, said he sees the Webb case as an anomaly and doesn't expect to see more prosecutions of officers.
"I don't see a higher level of scrutiny," he said. "I think there's always a high level of scrutiny of the law enforcement profession just because of the nature of the profession."
Staff writer Imran Ghori contributed to this report.
Reach Duane W. Gang at 909-806-3062 or dgang@PE.com