Crime & Justice

Quick May Day melee trial closes in LA Superior Court

In this May 1, 2007 file photo, Los Angeles Police Metro Division officers advance on a crowd during an immigration rally in MacArthur Park.
In this May 1, 2007 file photo, Los Angeles Police Metro Division officers advance on a crowd during an immigration rally in MacArthur Park.
AP Photo/Chad K. Uyeno, File

Closing arguments begin today in a civil lawsuit brought by three journalists against the city of Los Angeles and its police department. Jurors in Superior Court will weigh whether to hold the LAPD responsible for physical and psychological injuries journalists claim took place in MacArthur Park during an immigration rally three years ago.

Fox 11 TV reporter Christina Gonzalez, Fox camerawoman Patti Ballaz and KPCC reporter Patricia Nazario were in the park on May Day. All sustained injuries from contact with L.A. police officers. Each of the three women with claims against the city testified during the trial, offering the greatest detail made public about their injuries and their contact with police.

Ballaz told jurors that the incident has ruined her life. The one-time camerawoman said she will not return to her chosen profession. Ballaz has had several surgeries on her hands and has said she is in almost constant pain. She's seeking compensation for what she alleges will be lower salaries in work she may take up now that her career as a camerawoman has ended.

According to Courthouse News Service, Ballaz testified that an officer threw Christina Gonzalez around "like a rag doll." Gonzalez says she saw an officer hit Ballaz. Gonzalez says she still suffers flashbacks and nightmares; she has taken medication for her neck pain, caused, she says, when she was struck with a baton.

KPCC reporter Nazario also says police hit her twice with a baton. Nazario testified that she did not return to work for 15 months. Her attorney says she still has trouble focusing and sleeping.

The fast-moving trial saw all three women's lawyers present witnesses, including experts. Thirty-two people came through the courtroom in just under seven days of testimony.

Lou Reiter, a police consultant and expert witness who served in the LAPD for 20 years, said the force police used to move camerawoman Ballaz and reporter Gonzalez was unreasonable. Former LAPD deputy chief Michael Hillman, who wrote an 80-page report on the events in MacArthur Park on May 1, 2007, told the jury that police appeared to violate the department's own internal policies with actions taken that day.

Deputy city attorneys countered that a violation of LAPD policies isn't a violation of the law; if the force was reasonable, they argued, the city can't be held to blame for what happened. In opening statements, city attorneys claimed they'd show that the journalists disobeyed a clear dispersal order, and got in the way of police officers in an unrelenting quest to get the story.

An officer on scene in the park that day told the court he pushed but did not hit Ballaz with his baton.

City attorneys presented some evidence they said pointed to two journalists' involvement in protesting and committing violence against police. According to Courthouse News Service, one witness testified that he saw a man pull a brick out of Nazario's bag – a charge the KPCC reporter flatly denies. No video or photos shown to jurors during the trial show a brick in Nazario's possession. A police officer on scene in the park said he thought Fox reporter Gonzalez might go for his gun.

Plaintiffs' attorneys will argue that the city should pay the journalists damages. Jury instructions offered a glimpse of possible legal theories under which the women could recover: one, that the LAPD was negligent; two, that the LAPD allowed officers to batter the journalists; or three, that federal civil law prohibits a violation of the journalists' civil rights. The jury would only have to find one of the theories more plausible than not in order for each woman to succeed in court.

The Los Angeles City Council has approved more than $13 million in settlements related to May Day. Most of that money has gone to protesters involved in the melee.

No officers involved in the melee in the park have been fired. One man received the toughest sanction meted out by the LAPD's disciplinary panel in this instance: a 20-day suspension. The clash in the park prompted the LAPD to retrain its officers, and lengthened the amount of time under which the department was under federal oversight.

Jury deliberations in this case could begin as early as Wednesday afternoon. The presiding judge in the case said he hoped to wrap up the trial before Friday.

KPCC Wire Services contributed to this report.