The (semi-) Honorable J. Spencer Letts, who closely resembled the judge in the hit comedy My Cousin Vinny, sat high upon his throne in all of his black robeness, and glared at the four cop defendants who stood before him. Yours truly was one of the four.
Violation of Civil Rights
The charges against us stemmed from the arrests of the two plaintiffs. It was a hot summer night in Firestone when my co-defendants and I were dispatched to handle a gang fight in the south end of our jurisdiction. We arrived to see scores of misguided youths fighting in the street. Our attention was quickly drawn toward one youth, in particular, Mr. Gilbert Espinoza. He was running down the road striking a presumed adversary about the head and body with a large piece of lumber. It was an assault with a deadly weapon, and we would have been justified in using deadly force to stop it. But we arrested Gilbert with only the use of minimal force while he resisted being handcuffed.
Gilbert’s lovely sister, Maria, inserted herself into the situation by attacking us. She kicked and punched at us while we handcuffed Gilbert and escorted him to our car. After placing Gilbert in the back seat, we arrested his sister for interfering with an arrest and committing battery on a peace officer. She too resisted arrest, which caused us to use minimal force to subdue her. Gilbert began yelling and screaming from the back seat, telling us to remove our hands from his sister. He was thrashing about, alternately pounding his head against the windows and then trying to kick them out.
By this time, our sergeant had arrived. He ordered us to remove Gilbert from the vehicle in order to hobble restrain him before he broke out our windows.
Coddling a Perjured Witness
Judge Letts kept a close eye on the four defendants dressed in suits and ties—as if we were the threat in the room—while he handed a box of tissue to the witness.
The witness at that time was the mother of the two plaintiffs, Gilbert and Maria. The reason the witness was crying was that our attorney had just caught her in a very relevant lie, and she was forced to admit it in front of the jury.
We had not yet testified; this was the plaintiff’s case in chief. Yet the (semi-) Honorable J. Spencer Letts told the witness that it was okay that she had lied, then he instructed the jury to make nothing of her lies, that she was only a mother protecting her children. Then, in the same breath, he straightened in his throne as a vicious scowl crept onto his long face, and he pointed his finger at the four of us who sat quietly while being condemned. “But the four of you know better!” he exclaimed to the surprise of everyone in the courtroom. “I won’t tolerate any misconduct from you officers!”
But is Justice Blind?
That was how it began. The next six weeks included the judge calling one of us a liar as he testified that the defendant was striking the window of our radio car with his head while wearing cuffs. He said—in front of the jury—that it was preposterous to think one would do such a thing. (Has he never watched Cops?) In fact, he was so convinced it was a falsehood, he ordered a demonstration wherein his court clerk would wear handcuffs and be placed in the back of a car. Our attorney objected, of course, but his objection was overruled. Our attorney had objected a dozen times a day during that six-week trial on numerous issues. Each time he was overruled, and on many occasions, the judge threatened to hold him in contempt as he tried to argue.
If you haven’t picked up on it yet, the judge was biased against us law enforcement types. We were told he particularly disliked the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department, because, he had once received a citation and sent it to Sheriff Sherman Block with a note instructing the sheriff to take care of it. Sheriff Block returned the citation with a note stating he doesn’t “fix” tickets, and he encouraged Letts to pay his fine or appear as ordered.
Impeachment Material Excluded
On Monday little Gilbert didn’t show up for court. We four presumably guilty men were snickering and passing notes questioning where the little asshole was. Of course, we had each concluded Gilbert was likely in jail. At the first break we made a call and sure as hell, he was in custody at East Los Angeles Sheriff’s station. He had been arrested over the weekend when an undercover narcotics deputy on a surveillance detail observed Gilbert committing a drive-by shooting. Remarkably, Gilbert had his infant child in the van beside him. This was after the downtrodden plaintiff had testified with tears in his eyes that he has NEVER been involved in any sort of gang activity.
Gilbert’s gang activity was a matter of record, a record which was withheld from the jurors in our case. At just nineteen years old, he had been arrested more than a dozen times. Each and every arrest had an element of gang activity. After one such arrest, he was additionally charged with carving his gang affiliation and moniker on the jail wall, an incident that had been video-recorded. Yet Letts, the brilliant, unassailable black-robed pompous ass that he was (past tense, because he is now deceased), ruled that none of the past crimes and sins of the plaintiff would be admissible, because, of course, any such information would be highly prejudicial.
“But your honor,” my attorney pled in vain, “this is impeachment material! He testified before your court that he has never—”
Letts growled over the bench and told our attorney to take his seat. He went on to say something about how the shooting incident was only alleged to have happened, and then he went as far as to suggest the entire incident had been orchestrated by us in order to have the plaintiff arrested.
It was at that moment I understood Letts had a standing order that no officer would ever be armed in his courtroom.
A Kangaroo Court
When the trial concluded, we were found guilty as charged. It came as no surprise given the biased position of the kangaroo court. It also hadn’t helped that the trial started within weeks of the Rodney King beating, the footage of which was still being played on a continuous loop across most media outlets. Those images alone would have swayed many jurors against us.
For those who don’t know, when an appellate court hears a case, they can rule one way or the other with or without publishing an opinion on their ruling. The Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals—the most liberal appellate court in the country—overturned the verdicts against us, and they published an opinion detailing the dastardly deeds of the (semi-) Honorable Judge what’s-his-ass for his blatant prejudice against us. No jury would have rendered a favorable verdict for us, under the circumstances.
After the case was overturned, the plaintiffs settled with the county in order to avoid having to go back to court. There were two really good reasons why: they would not likely find another judge who hated cops as did the late, (semi-) Honorable J. Spencer Letts; and, our precious little Gilbert was now deemed to be “unavailable.”
Gilbert Espinoza had been killed in a walk-up, gang-related shooting. (Oh, to think of the irony, not to mention the karma.)
His death was yet another tragic loss of life, but one mustn’t mourn forever.