About 11 years ago, when I was a prosecutor, one of my colleagues in the district attorney’s office discovered what he believed to be conclusive evidence that an officer in his case (Newport Beach Police Officer Kristen O’Donnell) lied under oath. In short, O’Donnell had testified that she interviewed a suspect while standing outside her police car. A video later proved that the suspect was sitting inside her vehicle at the time. The location was significant because the officer had not read the suspect his Miranda rights before speaking with him. If the judge believed the interview took place when the suspect was in custody, the suspect’s statement would have been inadmissible.
My colleague, obviously disgusted and wanting to distance himself from her false testimony, asked the judge to dismiss the case. As reported in the press at the time, he told the judge: “I am convinced, with all due candor, that the officer perjured herself.”
But police officers don’t like it when people (particularly prosecutors) accuse them of committing felonies. Politics ensued. Soon thereafter, the elected District Attorney distanced himself from his underling’s statements. And, as my colleagues in the office quickly learned, the prosecutor was disciplined. Management publicly faulted him for “rush[ing] in giving his opinion to the court.” The officer’s department also supported her, stating unequivocally: “There was no perjury; there was no misconduct. And we don’t see any other facts coming in.”
Fast forward to this year. Judge Richard King, a judicial officer widely respected for his integrity and independence, ruled that O’Donnell’s testimony concerning a search warrant in another case “was either intentionally false or done with reckless disregard for the truth.”
Despite the extraordinary evidence of dishonesty cited by Judge King (not to mention her 1999 testimony), O’Donnell’s department – once again – is not alarmed. As reported in the Register, “A Newport Beach police spokesman declined to comment, but pointed to an earlier department statement denying O’Donnell was dishonest.”
The more things change, the more they stay the same.
While the prosecutor in the 1999 case may have acted rashly by calling the officer a perjurer in open court before “running it up the flagpole,” his instincts at the time were correct to the extent he demonstrated independence and a refusal to tolerate police corruption. If the aftermath of that case had been handled differently by the district attorney’s office, not to mention the Newport Beach Police Department, perhaps her testimony before Judge King would have been a little closer to the truth.