The Riddle of Richard Rosenthal

What should we expect from Portland's new police watchdog?

When City Auditor Gary Blackmer announced his choice for Portland's new top cop-watcher last week, he got the positive press he probably was hoping for. In an Aug. 13 article, The Oregonian quoted three sources, including Blackmer, who said Los Angeles prosecutor Richard Rosenthal was a good guy and a great pick to head the newly created Office of Independent Police Review.

Calls to L.A. law-enforcement officials turned up similar sentiments. "Richard's an excellent lawyer and a man of very high integrity," L.A. Deputy District Attorney Jim Cosper told WW. "Our loss is certainly your city's gain."

But some who stand at the opposite side of the California bar say the City of Roses, which also hired police chief Mark Kroeker from the City of Angels, has once again picked someone who looks better on paper than in real life. "Portland's loss is L.A's gain," retorts defense attorney Stephen Yagman. "Portland has become a toxic waste dump for Los Angeles law enforcement."

Given the philosophical differences between prosecutors and defense attorneys, it's hardly shocking that there are different takes on Rosenthal. At the very least, the split opinion illustrates the challenge that awaits him when he takes office Oct. 1 and starts looking over the shoulder of police detectives as they investigate complaints of officer misconduct.

Rosenthal is heading north at a pivotal time. Public confidence and officer morale have been shaken by a relentless string of bad headlines. Meanwhile, a ballot measure on tap for 2002 to set up a stronger police watchdog system ensures that Rosenthal's every move will be placed under a microscope.

So what should we expect from the new guy? His past may hold some answers.

On Sept. 10, 1999, Los Angeles police officer Rafael Perez made a startling confession, kicking off a scandal named for the LAPD division in which it arose: Rampart.

Rosenthal, assigned to the unit charged with investigating cops, was going after Perez for stealing cocaine from an evidence room. Seeking a plea deal, Perez offered Rosenthal bigger fish, claiming that his partner had shot an unarmed gang member in the head and Perez helped cover it up by planting a gun on the suspect. Perez went on to claim that cops were doing other evidence-planting as well, not to mention unjustified shootings, beatings, lying under oath, and stealing and dealing drugs.

"It felt like I was hit by a rock," Rosenthal told WW in a phone interview last week.

Eventually, more than 100 convictions were overturned and eight officers indicted. But with Rosenthal's boss, District Attorney Gil Garcetti, running for reelection, the probe quickly became a political football. Last April, one of Rosenthal's fellow Rampart prosecutors publicly claimed that, to help Garcetti's electoral chances, good cases were not being filed.

Rosenthal acknowledges that he was on the brink of indicting Perez's partner--but says his superiors told him not to, due to a change in strategy. He considered it a reasonable explanation and refuses to speculate on political motives, saying, "I wasn't in the room where they were making the decisions."

In any case, the Rampart probe today is widely viewed as a fiasco. None of the convictions has held up on appeal. Attorneys, including prosecutors, have attacked its handling, saying only a fraction of the likely police misconduct has been punished.

"The filings that came out of it were pretty minimal compared to Perez's allegations," concedes Rosenthal, "Unfortunately we never got the kind of evidence that we needed." He notes, however, that he had little role in handling indictments after being reassigned early last year.

Rosenthal has also been second-guessed for his role in a case involving alleged rape by Judge George Trammell, whose daughter was an L.A. prosecutor. In 1997, Trammell was accused of repeatedly forcing himself upon a Chinese immigrant whose husband he'd imprisoned. Trammell allegedly said the woman's husband would get out earlier if she cooperated.

Despite significant circumstantial evidence and similar allegations by other women who had passed through Trammell's courtroom, Rosenthal did not prosecute the judge for rape under color of authority-- even after a civil judge found a preponderance of evidence that the woman was raped. Several attorneys and law professors publicly charged Garcetti's office with sweeping the case under the rug.

Rosenthal, however, told WW there was not enough proof to show the sex wasn't consensual, and noted that the criminal standard of "beyond a reasonable doubt" is a higher standard than that used in civil courts. "That was one of the easiest prosecutorial decisions of my career," he said.

Rosenthal notes he referred the case to the U.S. Attorney--who used federal law to secure a conviction. The following year, Rosenthal helped persuade the California Legislature to pass a law making it easier to prosecute judges.

Charles Lindner, a past president of the L.A. criminal defense bar, says Rosenthal has tremendous legal skills and high integrity, but may be too quick to believe authority figures like judges--or police.

"Richard tends to believe the good guys, or the guys who are supposed to be the good guys," Lindner says. "There's a sense among my colleagues that he doesn't ask the hard follow-up questions. I think if he sees [misconduct] he will be tenacious in going after it. The question is, will he see it?"

Almost any prosecutor could be criticized for trusting police, says Jim Provenza, another L.A. deputy district attorney. "But if there's anybody who I felt was capable of going beyond that, it would be Richard. Richard's one of those people that's always going to do the right thing."

L.A. defense lawyer Richard Moss echoes this assessment. In 1995, when Rosenthal was in the workers' compensation fraud unit, his colleagues wanted to go after Moss' client, a manager of a chain of medical clinics, for tax fraud. Rosenthal, however, refused to prosecute, saying it was a weak case.

"He's an example of what a prosecutor's ethics and integrity are supposed to be in this world," says Moss, himself a former prosecutor. "A prosecutor's job is not to convict; it is to do justice in every case.

Richard Rosenthal, 39, will take a pay cut in Portland. He was making $125,000 in L.A. Here, he will earn $67,000. He says his wife, a hotshot prosecutor in her own right, will probably eventually take the Oregon bar exam.

The first time Rosenthal tried Rafael Perez, he got a hung jury. Observers credit him for retrying Perez--which is what made the crooked cop break open the Ramparts investigation.