How a detective made up evidence and got away with it
by Jim Crogan
A judge didn’t buy his story.
(Photo by L.A. Police Revolver
and Athletic club)
The faulty evidence involves William Douglass, a 30-year veteran detective who was investigating the attempted armed robbery of a taxi driver in Wilmington two years ago. Two shots were fired by one of the two suspects, both striking the protective glass barrier in the taxi. It never became clear why he did, but Douglass focused his attention on Jose Corona, the San Pedro man arrested in May 2000.
Douglass provided the prosecutor what looked like definitive evidence against Corona. It was a series of fingerprint-analysis reports showing that Corona’s prints matched one of the 24 lifted from the taxi.
Defense attorney Dale Rubin, as part of his preparation for trial, demanded copies of the fingerprint reports. The reports, however, showed that only four fingerprints had been lifted from the taxicab, and that none of them matched Corona’s.
Faced with this contradiction, Douglass claimed in a written report he made the fake fingerprint analysis as a “prop” in an attempt to get Corona to confess. The detective said he forgot to replace the fake report with the real one when he filed his case with the District Attorney’s Office.
After looking into the discrepancy, Long Beach Superior Court Judge Joan Comparet-Cassani dismissed the case against Corona, and issued a damning eight-page opinion against the detective.
“It is hard to believe that within the span of four months Det. Douglass’ memory was so bad that he forgot he had doctored the evidence,” wrote the judge. Comparet-Cassani emphasized that Douglass admitted changing evidence and that she found it “impossible” to accept his explanation that the trouble was caused by “negligence, inattention or an honest mistake.”
Douglass, she continued, had violated Corona’s constitutional rights. “The function of law enforcement is the prevention of crime and apprehension of criminals, but that function does not include and cannot include the manufacture of evidence. Were the court to tolerate the officer’s conduct in this case, this court as well would participate in that abuse.”
Last June 11, the judge threw out the case against Corona. Seven months later, on February 14, Deputy District Attorney Elizabeth Munisoglu decided not to file charges against the detective. “I looked at it and I didn’t see a criminal action,” she said in an interview. “I saw an error in judgment and a mistake, one that shouldn’t have happened, of course. But it was just a mistake on the detective’s part.”
Asked if she read the judge’s ruling and statement of facts issued when the attempted-murder charge was dismissed, Munisoglu said, “Yes, but I didn’t give it much weight in making my decision. I have to look at the facts objectively,” she said.
Corona is now in jail on unrelated charges. At the time of his arrest in the holdup of taxi driver Tefera Wajiria, Corona was facing charges for stealing CDs from a Long Beach Tower Records. He is serving a three-year term, with credit for the 469 days he served awaiting trial in the attempted-murder case.
Douglass has refused to be interviewed and went on stress-related sick leave shortly after the case unraveled. Corona’s attorney, Rubin, said: “I’m just thankful I had a judge who was willing to push for the truth.”
The handling of the Douglass matter raises questions about the commitment of the District Attorney’s Office to diligently resolve cases of possible police corruption.
“This case was handed to us on a silver platter,” said a senior deputy district attorney, who spoke on condition of anonymity. “We had an obligation to fully investigate Douglass’ alleged misconduct as soon as we knew about it.”
Word of the detective’s contradictory statements about the fingerprint analysis first reached the D.A.’s Office on January 9, 2001, when the head deputy in Long Beach, Allen Field, notified the Justice System Integrity Division, which focuses on misconduct involving law-enforcement officers.
Field also called the LAPD’s Internal Affairs Division about Douglass’ conduct in the Corona case. On July 31, the LAPD sent its report to the D.A.’s Office. It was only then that the matter was assigned to Munisoglu. She defended the time she spent reviewing the case. “The LAPD took its time investigating, and I wanted more information. I don’t think I have to rush this. It’s a complicated case and has to be explained very carefully,” she said.
In a written summary of her decision not to file charges, Munisoglu documented statements that Douglass made about fingerprint evidence in the Corona case. Before the trouble arose over the fake report, she wrote, the detective told the prosecutor handling the case that “there was no fingerprint evidence linking Corona to the taxicab.”
Later, according to Munisoglu’s report, the prosecutor asked Douglass to check to see if any prints could help identify a second suspect in the case. It was then that Douglass produced what turned out to be the phony report, claiming he had forgotten it was in the file.
Field, when asked by the Weekly if this version of events supports Douglass’ contention that he made an honest mistake, said: “I find his position inconsistent with the facts.”
L.A. County District Attorney Steve Cooley made prosecution of public corruption a mainstay of his campaign two years ago, criticizing incumbent Gil Garcetti’s foot-dragging in the Rampart scandal. Cooley was out of town and not available for an interview.
One of his office’s chief critics is Gigi Gordon, director of the Post-Conviction Center and court-appointed attorney representing more than 2,000 indigent defendants in the Rampart scandal. She also helped with the Corona case. In her opinion, charges should have been filed against Douglass. “What are the complications? Douglass admitted doctoring the evidence. You have the judge’s ruling that it’s deliberate misconduct. This is a no-brainer.”
Attorney Rubin asks: “Didn’t Cooley pledge that police corruption would not be tolerated? Instead, they’re saying, ‘Don’t worry. We’ll stand behind you, even when you manufacture evidence to frame someone.’”
According to D.A. records, obtained by the Weekly, Douglass has been subpoened to testify in hundreds of cases. But neither the D.A.’s Office nor the LAPD has reviewed those arrests for potential misconduct.
Gordon believes that the D.A.’s Office should abide by a federal mandate that requires it to inform defense attorneys in all of those cases about the problems with the Corona case. “They still haven’t sent out letters notifying other defense lawyers, representing clients arrested by Douglass, about his misconduct. They need to do that, so those attorneys can file any appropriate appeals.”
Prosecutor Field said he has told defense attorneys in three or four open cases last January in which Douglass played a role. He would not identify the cases.
LAPD spokesman Lieutenant Horace Frank said Douglass faces an administrative hearing for his handling of the Corona case. The hearing is scheduled for mid-August.
Ignoring the lessons of Rampart, Jim Hahn’s City Attorney’s Office waged an unsuccessful campaign for months to withhold Douglass’ discipline record from Corona’s defense lawyers. According to those documents and additional ones obtained by the Weekly, Douglass has been the subject of 11 complaints since he was hired in 1971. He has worked at Southwest, 77th, Pacific, Hollywood and Harbor divisions. He’s currently a detective supervisor. The complaints include allegations of excessive force, dishonesty, destruction of documents, altering of records, bad tactics, neglect of duty, and violation of department procedures and traffic laws. Here are details:
• 2001 — Douglass was administratively charged with making improper remarks to a fellow officer. The charge was sustained and Douglass received five days off.
• 1987 — Douglass applied for injury-on-duty status. The claim was for PCP-induced stress, likely caused when he busted a PCP lab. Douglass stayed off work for nine months. The legitimacy of his claim was investigated by the LAPD, but the results were “inconclusive.”
• 1985 — Douglass was administratively charged with neglect of duty after he left his assigned patrol area to conduct personal business without permission. This complaint was sustained and combined with another unspecified charge. Douglass was given three days off.
• 1983 — Douglass faced his first Board of Rights hearing after he was subpoenaed as a witness but failed to show up in court. Then he allegedly altered the subpoena logbook at Pacific Division to cover his failure to appear. He was also accused of lying to investigating officers. The board cleared Douglass after he passed an in-house polygraph test. However, in the board’s written finding, one captain noted, “There were indications that the officer did alter the record.”
• 1983 — A neglect-of-duty complaint was sustained for his failure to handle a radio call. This complaint was combined with another unspecified charge, and Douglass was suspended three days.
• 1981 — Douglass was ordered to fully account for his whereabouts on a shift by completing his Daily Field Activity Report. Instead Douglass threw away his previously submitted log sheet. This complaint was sustained, and Douglass received an admonishment.
• 1978 — Douglass was reprimanded for his roughing up of an auto-theft suspect and, on the same day, for his handling of a man who was allegedly under the influence of PCP.
• 1977 — Douglass was accused of getting a copy of actress Farrah Fawcett’s booking photo for his own personal use. He was suspended two days.
• 1975 — Douglass and two other officers conducted an allegedly illegal search of a South-Central home, during which he was accused of physically forcing a confession from a man. Douglass received a 15-day suspension.
• 1974 — Douglass was found to have unnecessarily run two red lights while on duty.
• 1973 — Douglass
was accused of dishonesty for allegedly taking $3,300 from a suspect. The
resolution of this case is unknown.
||Truth in Justice