Ex-L.A. Cops Lose Appeal of Obstruction Cases

     PASADENA, Calif. (CN) — The Ninth Circuit affirmed Thursday the convictions of seven former members of the Los Angeles Sheriff’s Department for obstructing justice in a federal investigation into civil-rights abuses in county jails.
     Gerard Smith, Maricela Long, Gregory Thompson, Mickey Manzo, Scott Craig, Stephen Leavins and James Sexton challenged several jury instructions, all of which the Ninth Circuit deemed proper.
     In July 2011, as part of a federal grand jury and FBI investigation regarding use-of-force incidents in LASD jails, the FBI smuggled a cellphone to Anthony Brown, an inmate in the Men’s Central Jail, via an undercover agent bribing LASD Deputy Gilbert Michel, according to court records.
     The cellphone was seized by the LASD, who later learned about its connection to the FBI’s investigation.
     FBI agents, including Leah Marx, interviewed Brown a few days later, but the meeting was broken up by an LASD sergeant.
     In order to prevent the FBI from contacting him again and to avoid a federal district court order for a writ of his testimony before a grand jury, Sexton released and rebooked Brown in several other jails under various aliases until Brown agreed to stop working with the FBI, court records show.
     Leavins, Craig and Long interviewed Michel and Deputy William Courson and tried to dissuade them from cooperating with the FBI.
     An LASD Internal Criminal Investigations Bureau task force — of which Leavins was the lead lieutenant and Craig, Long, Smith and Manzo were members — attempted to intimidate and obtain an arrest warrant for Marx. This set the FBI’s investigation back three months.
     In addition to the obstructing justice and conspiracy to obstruct justice charges, Craig and Long were charged with making false statements to the FBI. All the defendants were convicted on all counts and sentenced to prison.
     The former officers claimed they were acting in good faith and protecting Brown, and on appeal they claimed that several of the jury instructions from their respective trials were improper.
     For instance, they claimed the instructions referencing a “grand jury investigation” rather than a “grand jury proceeding” made it possible for the jury to convict them for obstructing the FBI rather than for obstructing the grand jury.
     Judge Ferdinand Fernandez, in delivering the panel’s unanimous decision, wrote that the phrasing was not misleading.
     “We also see no possibility that the jury understood ‘grand jury investigation’ to refer to things the FBI may have done as part of an investigation independent of the grand jury’s authority,” Fernandez wrote. “There was no need for the district court to give an additional instruction…which stated that it was insufficient for the government to show that they obstructed an FBI investigation, as opposed to a grand jury investigation.”
     The defendants also argued that the jury should have been told that the government had to demonstrate that obstruction of justice was the defendants’ sole intent.
     This argument, Fernandez wrote, also fails.
     “A defendant’s unlawful purpose to obstruct justice is not negated by the simultaneous presence of another motive for his overall conduct,” the judge wrote.
     The former officers claimed there should have been other changes to the jury instructions involving elements of good faith and innocent intent, but none of these arguments persuaded the Ninth Circuit.
     “There is little dispute about what appellants did, but a good deal of conflict about why they did it—their intent, their motives, their purposes,” Fernandez wrote. “They say that all was done for benign purposes but the government says that what they did was for criminal purposes. Ultimately, a properly instructed jury had to decide whose narrative it believed—the amaranthine essence of the jury function. These juries were properly instructed, and accepted the government’s position.”
     Thursday’s ruling comes after the Ninth Circuit heard oral arguments in the case last month.
     William Genego in Santa Monica, Calif., represented Smith.
     Karen Lee Landau in Oakland represented Craig.
     Leavins was represented by Todd Burns from Burns & Cohan in San Diego.
     Thomas O’Brien from Paul Hastings LLP in Los Angeles represented Sexton.
     Los Angeles federal public defenders Hillary Potashner, Gail Ivens and Elizabeth Richardson-Royer represented Long.
     Thompson was represented by Kevin McDermott in Irvine.
     Matthew Lombard in Los Angeles represented Manzo.
     The government was represented by prosecutors Laura Ashley Aull, Lawrence S. Middleton and Eileen Decker, all based in Los Angeles.
     Landau and Middleton declined to comment. None of the other attorneys responded to phone or email messages Thursday.
     Former L.A. County Sheriff Leroy Baca will be tried for charges related to the FBI investigation, after he withdrew his guilty plea on Monday.
     Former L.A. undersheriff Paul Tanaka was found guilty in April of obstructing the FBI investigation.

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