A year-long trial for four Oakland, California, police officers accused of beating black inner city drug suspects, planting drugs, framing suspects and other related offenses ended Wednesday when an Alameda County jury that included no blacks cleared the officers on eight counts and declared itself hopelessly divided on 27 others. The case, which has polarized the city, is now in limbo while Alameda County District Attorney Thomas Orloff ponders whether to retry the defendants. He will announce a decision by October 15.
The Rough Riders were Oakland police officers Clarence "Chuck" Mabanag, Jude Siapno Matthew Hornung, and Frank Vazquez, who was tried in absentia after presumably fleeing to Mexico. They were fired from the force in July 2000 after two rookie policeman, Kevin Batt and Steve Hewison, informed their superiors about their alleged misdeeds. Their allegations led to a police internal affairs review, which in turn led to the four losing their jobs.
The four had night-shift patrols in the West Oakland flatlands, a predominantly black area of the city plagued by street-level drug dealing and related crime. In dramatic testimony during the year-long trial, witness after witness described beatings, false arrests, and trumped-up charges perpetrated by the Rough Riders. Oakland officials were so convinced of the Rough Riders' misbehavior that not only were the four fired, the city has paid out almost $11 million dollars to people claiming to have been attacked by the Rough Riders and it has dropped more than 90 drug cases tainted by the touch of the Rough Riders.
But none of this was sufficient for the jury in this case. Selected from a jury pool of 136 -- a pool that included only 12 blacks -- the jury ended up including seven white men, two white women, two women of Latina descent, and one Asian woman. The foreman was a white man who is a law student and works for a state agency. All of those who testified about being abused by the Rough Riders were black.
The Oakland Tribune reported this week that jurors described their seven week of deliberations as "polarized" from the outset, with the unnamed foreman declaring on day one that there was too much reasonable doubt to convict on any of the 35 charges. Jurors quickly broke into two blocks, one that supported the police and one that was skeptical, the Tribune reported. Some panel members told the Tribune other jurors dismissed the testimony of the admitted drug sellers and users who testified to being abused by the Rough Riders, while a black alternate juror told the paper it was unfair that no black jurors were on the panel.
"The thing that was scary was, at the end, it felt like the personalities overtook the whole thing," one juror told the Tribune. "The sad thing was, the case was there but it was about people proving themselves right and getting over on the other person. It was ugly, so ugly."
That wasn't the only ugliness in the jury room. According to the Tribune, which has gained access to some juror notes, jurors were grappling with the notion of "Noble Cause Corruption," which the paper described as "the inference it is morally acceptable to do nasty things to despicable people."
Oakland NAACP president Shannon Reeves criticized the jury make-up. "When you bring in jurors who have no context of experience relative to the relationship between the police and the African-American community and what actually happens on the street, that means it was hard for them to believe cops plant evidence," Reeves told the Tribune. "They can't fathom it -- they don't live in that environment."
Oakland Vice Mayor Nancy Nadel, the council member who represents the West Oakland district where the Riders were assigned, joined in that criticism. "This jury may not have been familiar with how police treat citizens in West Oakland, so perhaps they were not able to objectively analyze what occurs in the community," Nadel said. "I think the jury viewed them all as having a criminal history, even though that is not true. And no matter whether individuals were at other times involved in criminal activities, they have rights as well. The verdict does not help build trust between the West Oakland community and the police," she told the Tribune.
Attorney John Burris, who orchestrated the settlements with Rough Riders victims, was flabbergasted at the apparent racial divide, he told the Tribune. "This case is another clear illustration of the different attitudes of the black and white communities," he said, suggesting that members of the white community thought police were just doing their jobs. "But the black community feels there is no question that these officers were engaged in a pattern of misconduct," Burris said. "They see the white community as giving these officers a wink and a nod."
PUEBLO Oakland (http://www.peopleunited.org), a 14-year-old social justice community organization in the Oakland flatlands also criticized the jury. "We think that justice was not served," PUEBLO executive director Dawn Phillips told DRCNet. "It appears that the jury foreman prevented jurors from examining the evidence in a clear and impartial manner," she said. "It is clear that the victims in this case have been twice brutalized, once by the police and once by the jury."
PUEBLO Oakland is calling for a retrial on the remaining 27 counts. It is also calling for a federal investigation with an eye toward filing charges under the Civil Rights Act. It is not alone. While a Department of Justice investigation seems a long-shot at this point, Oakland District Attorney Orloff has vowed to seriously examine a retrial. "The last chapter in this case has not been written yet," Orloff said. "It is a very important case to us... It questions the very integrity of the system."
The Oakland Police Department and Mayor Jerry Brown would like to put all this behind them, with Brown suggesting but not saying he was opposed to a retrial. "My view is the police are doing a hell of a job, I back them 100 percent," he said at a Tuesday press conference. "I think these things can put it to rest... given the fact that the jury spoke and we have invested millions of dollars in putting greater controls to avoid the kind of abuses that did in fact happen in this case, and that justified the firing of these police officers. We fired these cops because we thought they did not observe the kinds of standards we require and the law requires," Brown said. "I stand behind that judgment; I don't believe they are going to get their jobs back. They've lost their pensions, they had to sit through a grueling trial, they've been punished quite a lot."
Later in the day, Brown emphasized to the Tribune his sympathies with the police. "We've got some tough streets out there, with some individuals who will not hesitate to kill, to maim, to lie, to steal or to cheat, and we ask officers to go out there... and put their lives on the line every night, and I have a lot of sympathy for what they do," said Brown before -- and this is verbatim from the Tribune -- "he headed off to the Warehouse, a bar in the produce district that caters to police officers."
Meanwhile, "it's still business as usual" on the mean streets of West Oakland, said PUEBLO's Phillips, and the area's residents have a slightly different view than Brown's. The Oakland Tribune managed to gather the following quotes in a couple of hours on the day the verdicts were announced:
"Somebody got a lot of money somewhere," said Ben, a 10-year resident of 13th Street who did not want his last name used. "If I had been on that jury they'd be guilty. I see what they do on the streets. The funniest part of those Riders, there'd be a group of guys selling dope on the corner but they didn't mess with them. They were always messing with the wrong people," he said.
"They just don't treat this area the same at all," said Matt Baker, a member of the community group West Oaklanders on Peralta Street. "The law-abiding citizens in this part of town, the police don't have the same attitude toward us as they do the law-abiding citizens in other parts of town. I'm sure those guys thought that was the thing to do, even though it wasn't the thing to do," Baker said. "Nobody wants dirty cops. Even though there is a lot of drug activity in Oakland, you can't just pin it on whoever you want."
At 33rd Street and Martin Luther, James Johnson, 38, told the Tribune: "The police have always been rough on this community. They planted drugs on me once."