It was a shabby little bit of journalism, and it came back to bite them.
Last November, KTTV, the Fox affiliate here in Los Angeles, aired a news story that alleged two LAPD officers had perjured themselves in the prosecution of a gang member they had arrested for possession of a handgun. Officers assigned to the gang unit at Hollenbeck Division, east of downtown L.A., stopped a white Mercedes driven by Rafat “Danny” Abdallah when they saw the car had no license plates. A subsequent search of the car turned up a handgun which Abdallah, a previously convicted felon, was forbidden to possess.
Abdallah later produced a video that purported to show him driving away from his business just before the traffic stop, and when the tape was enhanced the car’s license plate was clearly visible. If the officers had lied about their probable cause for making the stop, the gun they said they recovered would be inadmissible in court. Abdallah would be cleared, and the officers themselves would likely have found themselves in the dock.
Or so it may have seemed. Jim Epstein, Abdallah’s attorney, shopped around for a sympathetic media outlet and was lucky enough to find a reporter with a degree of credulity one hopes is rare in the trade. “The cops lied, clearly,” Epstein told reporter John Schwada, who swallowed the tale whole. And Epstein went on to heap further slander on the officers. “My client denies he had any knowledge of that gun in his car,” he said, “and we think it could have been planted by the police.” Schwada concluded his report with this woeful coda: “Abdallah said he’s had multiple run-ins with the LAPD and is so fed up with them he’s moving his business elsewhere.”
He’ll be moving elsewhere, all right, but his only business will be making license plates. Abdallah has admitted through his attorney that the “exculpatory” video he peddled to KTTV had been fabricated, a fact the station reported Monday.
Okay, anyone can be hoodwinked. Reporter Schwada was presented with a story that, if true, was newsworthy and compelling. If the two officers had indeed trumped up a case against Abdallah, they would have deserved all the official sanction and public scorn Schwada and his television station hoped to arouse. But given the gravity of the allegation, wouldn’t a bit of journalistic legwork have been warranted? If Schwada or anyone else at KTTV attempted to seek a response from the officers or from the district attorney’s office it was not reflected in the story broadcast last November 17. The station did update the story on November 19, reporting that prosecutors were challenging the veracity of the video, but there was no interview with either prosecutors or police officers, and the report concluded with Schwada repeating Epstein’s claim of police misconduct.
And even after the truth about the video was revealed last week, KTTV apparently did not seek comment from anyone at the D.A.’s office or the LAPD, nor did they contact the Los Angeles Police Protective League, the labor union that represents rank-and-file officers, which issued a press release on the case Monday. (Full disclosure: I am a Protective League member of long standing.)
Incredibly, attorney Epstein demonstrated a level of credulity that rivals even reporter Schwada’s. On Monday, the Los Angeles Times reported on the case as follows: “Epstein said he warned his client that prosecutors would ask experts to examine the video and said he could not believe that Abdallah was behind the fraud, suggesting that someone else may have been responsible.”
Talk about going down with the ship! “Gosh, I can’t believe my client, a gang member with a long rap sheet, would stoop so low as to lie to me!” Even if Abdallah himself wasn’t the one who doctored the video, surely Mr. Epstein now realizes Abdallah’s car did not in fact have its license plates affixed on the night he was arrested, else why would Abdallah have produced the doctored video?
At the revelation of the bogus video, most defense attorneys would have asked for a recess and started begging for a plea bargain. But it may be that Abdallah’s criminal history is so extensive that he would have little to gain from trying to negotiate a deal. Or it may be that he wishes to try his luck with what we here in L.A. call a “downtown jury,” which on occasion have been known to turn a blind eye to even the most obvious evidence of guilt. And then it may be that the involved police officers and prosecutors, having been publicly impugned and then vindicated, are simply determined to stick it to Mr. Abdallah and have spurned any entreaties from his apparently shameless lawyer.
Whatever the result of the trial, KTTV and John Schwada have come out looking bad. I’ll be eager to see how they report on the case when the verdict comes in.