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Alex Umana

Summary of Rampart Scandal
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Alex Umana was one of approximately 170 men and women wrongfully convicted because of misconduct uncovered in an investigation into corruption by the Los Angeles Police Department’s Rampart division.

Umana was arrested around 11 p.m. on January 11, 1997 and charged with possession of cocaine. Officer Michael Buchanan said in the arrest report that he and Officers Daniel Lujan and Mark Richardson saw Umana and other men milling around in the lobby of an apartment building on Kenmore Avenue. They said they saw Umana remove a baggie containing a white substance from his mouth and then place the baggie on a ledge next to a fire hose.

Umana’s case went to trial on September 15, 1997 in Los Angeles Superior Court. The three officers testified. Umana did not testify, but his common-law wife, Nellie Cardenas, said that she, Umana and their daughter had just returned from a barbecue. It was about 10:40 p.m., and she went upstairs to ask some neighbors to be quiet. When she came downstairs, she saw Umana and several men lined up against the wall. The friend who threw the barbecue also testified that Umana was present at his house, before leaving with his family a little after 10:30 p.m.

The jury convicted Umana on September 24, 1997, and he was sentenced to five years in prison.

On August 17, 1998, Officer Rafael Perez of the Los Angeles Police Department was charged with theft, possession of cocaine, and forgery. The jury deadlocked at his trial (with a majority voting for conviction) in December 1998. Police investigated further, and additional charges were filed against Perez. Just before his retrial on September 8, 1999, Perez pled guilty to eight drug charges and struck a deal with prosecutors. In exchange for a sentence of no more than five years in prison, he would cooperate with an investigation into the Rampart operations.

Perez began talking two days later. Over the next year, he met with investigators from the police department and the district attorney’s office 29 times and detailed alleged misconduct by himself and his fellow officers.

Perez had no information about Umana’s arrest or conviction, but he said in his interviews that Lujan, Richardson, and Buchanan had committed extensive misconduct. The allegations led to exonerations for several other Rampart defendants in 1999 and early 2000.

On April 4, 2000, Umana filed a petition for a writ of habeas corpus. He claimed the officers had committed perjury at his trial and lied in their arrest report. He said the officers detained him only because he had gang tattoos.

His petition said the officers’ testimony was no longer credible. “Relief should be granted in this case as the arrest and conviction of Petitioner is based solely on the credibility of Rampart CRASH Officers whom have demonstrated a propensity to fabricate arrest reports and commit perjury in court,” the petition said.

In its response supporting the petition, the District Attorney for Los Angeles County did not address whether the officers had committed perjury at Umana’s trial.

“During his sworn interviews Rafael Perez has not made any statements relating to Umana's arrest in this particular case. However, Perez has made statements that in general corroborate Umana's claims that the narcotics in this case may have been planted,” the response said.

In addition, the DA’s office interviewed another witness, Raphael Franco, who saw the arrests take place and was one of the men originally detained. He said he was surprised to see Umana in custody, because Umana had a job and didn’t hang out with the drug dealers in the building.

Umana’s petition was granted on June 27, 2000. His conviction was vacated and the charge dismissed. He had been paroled from prison in the time between the filing and the granting of his petition.

Buchanan was charged and convicted of conspiracy to obstruct justice, but a judge overturned his conviction. He and the three other officers whose convictions were overturned filed lawsuits against the City of Los Angeles for malicious prosecution, which were settled in 2009 for $20.5 million. Separately, Lujan was later reprimanded for filing a false report on a case where a gun was said to have been planted.

More than 200 lawsuits, including a claim by Umana, were filed against the city by persons wrongfully convicted because of the Rampart misconduct or those who claimed they had been falsely arrested. Almost all were settled. There is no public final accounting, although a report from 2007 said the city had paid out $75 million, and more recent reports put the figure at closer to $125 million.

– Ken Otterbourg

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Posting Date: 2/9/2021
Last Updated: 2/9/2021
State:California
County:Los Angeles
Most Serious Crime:Drug Possession or Sale
Additional Convictions:
Reported Crime Date:1997
Convicted:1997
Exonerated:2000
Sentence:5 years
Race/Ethnicity:Hispanic
Sex:Male
Age at the date of reported crime:31
Contributing Factors:Perjury or False Accusation, Official Misconduct
Did DNA evidence contribute to the exoneration?:No