The Star-News, Thursday, July 30, 1987
In this writer's opinion, The Sagon Penn case isn't over yet.
Bradley J. Fikes - Staffer's column
Once again, justice has been denied in the case of Sagon Penn
Once again, a man has been about to walk away from the killing of a policeman and wounding of a civilian ride-along without being held to account.
It is indeed a tragedy that once again, police officer Donovan Jacobs has not had to stand trial for his actions one spring evening in Encanto.
When Penn was arrested in 1985 for the sensational killing of police officer Thomas Riggs and the woundings of ride-along Sara Pina-Ruiz and officer Jacobs, the case seemed open and shut. Penn was a gang member with a record, police said. He was violent and provoked the officers.
But then, some disturbing facts began to emerge about Jacob's conduct, lack of veracity - and the San Diego Police Department's hierarchy's curious attitude toward them.
Two successive juries and a judge believe Jacobs' story to be implausible and mistaken at best, and perjurous at worst. What's more distressing, other officers may have perjured themselves out of mistaken loyalty.
No one disputes the fact that Penn shot these people. What is in dispute is why he did so. If Penn had suddenly decided to murder three innocent people, then of course he should have been convicted. He was not. That scenario has been legally invalidated.
But here's another scenario. If Penn was first verbally and then physically assaulted by a bigoted, hot-tempered thug masquerading as a police officer, then he was merely trying to defend his life.
Penn's acquittal doesn't make the preceding scenario true. But it does raise the possibility. Police officers have the power of life and death. They are also human. Being human, some will abuse this power.
If Jacobs bears not only a moral responsibility for the death of his colleague and the injury to a civilian ride-along but a legal one, he should be punished. To determine if this is justified requires a trial.
Those who believe Jacobs probably haven't considered the sheer outlandishness of his account. Here are some of the problems, inconsistencies and outright falsehoods in the case against Penn:
-According to police investigators, Penn's truck was mechanically incapable of making a U-turn on a narrow street where Jacobs stopped him. An illegal U-turn was the beginning of the encounter - according to Jacobs.
-Penn, supposedly wearing the "colors" of a local gang, was not in fact wearing them.
-Numerous witnesses said they had heard Jacobs call Penn a "nigger" and then threaten to beat his "black ass." But police investigators made no note of this in their reports.
-Witnesses and neighbors said police investigators, not on nailing a supposed 'cop killer,' forcibly occupied their homes and (unconstitutionally) ordered them to talk; and forcibly took child witnesses away from their families for questioning.
-Witnesses agreed almost unanimously that Jacobs initiated the confrontation and administered the first blows. Yet Jacobs claimed it was Riggs who did these things. Of course, Officer Riggs isn't here to dispute that self-serving and unsubstantiated claim. (This is a matter which Riggs' friends ought to ponder. Their anger may be directed at the wrong man.)
-Jacobs suggested while in training at the police academy that racial slurs might be an effective way in controlling unruly suspects. This admission, made in a transcript that was 'lost' until a year ago, gives the lie to Jacobs' claim that "the word nigger is not in my vocabulary."
-Ride-along Pina-Ruiz admitted in a tape recording that she had no memory of being shot. This tape was made before she testified, under oath, that Penn locked eyes with her and saw she was a civilian before shooting her.
-Police detectives altered a crucial piece of evidence: A major Penn defense against intentionally shooting a civilian is that the reflection from the patrol car Pina-Ruiz was in, blocked his vision. Defense attorney Milton Silverman recreated the scene one year later, taking into account the exact time of sunset, the police car's exact positioning and the angle of Penn's approach to the car. Silverman's photos showed a glare on the glass that obscured the appearance of someone inside the car from someone outside.
-Prosecution investigators duplicated Silverman's feat. To their chagrin, the light obscured the picture. They then sent the negative back to a photo processing store with the instruction to make a darker print!
These incredible contradictions led to Judge J. Morgan Lester, who presided over the second trial, to speak out against the prosecution practices.
In the face of all this evidence, San Diego Police Chief Bill Kolender made a crude attempt to silence Judge Lester by threatening a complaint to a state judicial panel. (Kolender backed off when he discovered that judges aren't barred from comment once a case is over).
This is the same Kolender who last year told the Evening Tribune that Jacobs had lied on the witness stand. Kolender's feeble excuse is that he thought the comment was off the record.
The public interest demands that Jacobs go on trail for the murder of officer Riggs and wounding of Pina-Ruiz. The San Diego City Council should also look for a police chief who doesn't think the truth is an off-the-record item.
It is appalling that good police officers (and they are in the vast majority) have been deluded into defending a man whose actions have sullied an honorable profession. As long as Jacobs can portray himself as a victim, this delusion will go unchallenged.
Donovan Jacobs is no hero. It is high time to bring him to justice.