They were at the tail end of their overnight shift when they spotted Gerald Simmons near a vacant lot in Inglewood.
The two Los Angeles County sheriff’s deputies said they saw the 43-year-old toss a plastic baggie of rock cocaine to the ground.
Their testimony would become the backbone of the 2009 criminal case against Simmons.
After a six-day trial, the verdict was swift. Guilty.
But jurors made their decision without knowing a crucial detail.
Jose Ovalle, one of the deputies who also booked the evidence, had been suspended five years earlier for pouring taco sauce on a shirt to mimic blood in a criminal case. He nearly lost his job.
Ovalle’s past was kept secret for years from prosecutors, judges, defendants and jurors, even though he was a potential witness in hundreds of criminal cases that relied on his credibility, according to a Times investigation.
The deputy took the stand in 31 cases before the district attorney’s office found out about his misconduct. Once his credibility came into question, prosecutors offered some career criminals generous plea deals in pending cases or dropped charges altogether. Some went on to commit serious crimes.
Ovalle is not an isolated example. Misconduct by law enforcement officers who testify in court is routinely kept hidden by California’s police privacy laws.
The U.S. Supreme Court requires prosecutors to inform criminal defendants about an officer’s wrongdoing — but the state’s laws are so strict that prosecutors cannot directly access the personnel files of their own police witnesses. Instead, California puts the burden on defendants to prove to a judge that an officer’s record is relevant.
Times reporters reviewed documents from hundreds of criminal cases in which the district attorney’s office identified Ovalle as a potential witness after he was caught faking the bloody evidence in 2003.
Few defendants tried to obtain information about Ovalle’s past. A handful of those who did weren’t given information about the deputy’s discipline. Judges never gave them a public explanation for why it wouldn’t have been relevant.
By the time the district attorney’s office learned about Ovalle’s misconduct, he had been a potential witness against 312 defendants. More than 230 were
A Times investigation last year identified Ovalle and others on a secret Sheriff’s Department list of deputies whose misconduct included falsely testifying in court, pulling over a motorist and receiving oral sex from her while on patrol, and tipping off a drug dealer’s girlfriend about a narcotics bust.
Los Angeles County Sheriff Jim McDonnell wanted to disclose the so-called Brady list of about 300 officers to prosecutors, but the deputies union went to court to stop him.
The state’s Supreme Court will soon decide whether McDonnell and other law enforcement agencies can tell prosecutors if a police witness has a record of serious discipline. An appellate court has ruled they cannot.
Ovalle now works as a sergeant in the Sheriff’s Department’s Century station in Lynwood. Last year, he was paid $240,000 in salary, overtime and other earnings.
When reached by The Times for comment, Ovalle said: “I don’t understand why the L.A. Times is so interested about me.” He declined to comment further and asked not to be contacted again.
‘It was stupidity’
Ovalle’s troubles began in August 2003.
Several gang members at the Pitchess Detention Center in Castaic had slashed an inmate’s neck and head with razor blades.
A 26-year-old deputy with just three years on the job, Ovalle was responsible for collecting the evidence and writing the incident report.
When he realized a bloody shirt from one of the suspects had gone missing, Ovalle took a clean one from the jail laundry, topped it with taco sauce and took a photo, according to court and law enforcement records.
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