Defense attacks deputies in Rebecca Grossman case

ARGUMENTS—Tony Buzbee, the lawyer for Rebecca Grossman, gives a media interview at the Aug. 28 hearing in Van Nuys. EAMON MURPHY/Acorn Newspapers

ARGUMENTS—Tony Buzbee, the lawyer for Rebecca Grossman, gives a media interview at the Aug. 28 hearing in Van Nuys. EAMON MURPHY/Acorn Newspapers

Deputy gangs, the Kobe Bryant crash, and the street racing scene in “Grease” were all mentioned during a wide-ranging pretrial hearing in the Rebecca Grossman case Aug. 28 as the judge continued to rule on what evidence the two sides will be allowed to present to the jury.

The defendant is set to stand trial in Los Angeles County Superior Court starting Jan. 16 for charges including two counts of second-degree murder. Prosecutors say she was impaired by alcohol and a prescription drug when her speeding Mercedes fatally struck Mark and Jacob Iskander, ages 11 and 8, as they crossed a Westlake Village street with their family almost three years ago.

Grossman’s lawyers showed an eagerness to raise questions about how police handled the aftermath of the collision—in the words of her attorney Ryan Pigg, “the lackluster investigation that the defense is going to attack.”

One of the numerous motions considered by Judge Joseph Brandolino in his Van Nuys courtroom was about the admissibility of evidence regarding deputy gangs, which the defense wants to bring into the trial.

The Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department has notoriously had a problem with cliques or subgroups of deputies, operating out of certain stations, that act similarly to criminal street gangs, with distinctive tattoos, hand signals and rituals. A 2021 report by Loyola Law School analyzed how deputy gangs “have negatively impacted policing in Los Angeles and infected the fairness of legal proceedings in Los Angeles County Superior Court.”

Defense attorney Tony Buzbee, a prominent Houston litigator, told the judge that peer-reviewed studies show that this “is a significant problem in the state of California,” affecting a sizable number of officers like those who responded to the 2020 crash in Westlake.

“Those affiliations can affect their professionalism and competence to investigate incidents like this one,” Buzbee said.

Brandolino was unconvinced of the relevance of gang-related testimony on this point, telling Buzbee, “ I can’t imagine a scenario where I would allow it from an expert generally.”

If the defense has specific evidence of an officer being part of a deputy gang, they can make a case for the value of that, the judge said.

Loyola law professor Sean Kennedy, who researched and wrote the deputy gangs report with his students, told The Acorn there is no known deputy gang associated with the Malibu/ Lost Hills Sheriff’s Station, which handled the Grossman crash and subsequent investigation.

Much remains unknown about these gangs, Kennedy said, but they “tend to cluster around parts of L.A. County that have high minority and low-income population.”

Another defense attempt to discredit the police investigation invoked the 2020 death of Lakers basketball great Kobe Bryant, who perished with eight others when their helicopter went down in Calabasas. In a lawsuit, Byrant’s widow accused four Lost Hills deputies of taking or sharing unauthorized photographs of the crash site, including dead bodies. One of these officers, Rafael Mejia, responded to the accident that killed the Iskander boys.

At Grossman’s preliminary hearing in April 2022, Mejia testified that when he found the defendant by her damaged car that night, “I could smell alcohol coming from her person and breath, and her eyes were watery, bloodshot.” He called for an officer to perform a DUI investigation.

Mejia also said that Grossman told him she stopped on the side of the road because Mercedes-Benz disabled her vehicle, and that she had hit something but she didn’t know what.

According to Courthouse News Service regarding the Bryant incident, during an internal LASD probe of photos of the crash site, Mejia said, “Curiosity got the best of us—it’s in our nature as deputies.” He added that in hindsight he wouldn’t share the images again.

Buzbee told the court that Mejia took pictures of the Bryant crash and lied about it at first.

“He’s the individual that signed reports in this case,” the lawyer complained. Brandolino found the fact that deputies were sued in a different case to be irrelevant to the matter at hand.

“The lying is a separate issue,” the judge added, and said he has seen no evidence of that but would consider it if it were provided.

The two sides also clashed over the charged term “racing,” which has been used to describe Grossman’s driving that evening in tandem with another vehicle, that of her friend Scott Erickson, a former Los Angeles Dodgers pitcher. Erickson’s car went through the intersection where the Iskanders were walking just prior to Grossman’s. He was charged with misdemeanor reckless driving and ordered to join a judicial diversion program.

The defense wants to introduce a statement by prosecutor Ryan Gould from Erickson’s trial to the effect that there was no racing. Gould maintains that he was referring specifically to what he could prove with respect to Erickson, whose car was in the lead and provided no black box data, and that the facts for Grossman are different.

Though “ there wasn’t a ‘Grease’-style dropping of the handkerchief,” Gould said, he doesn’t want to have to instruct a witness not to use the word “racing” to describe what they saw—“two cars traveling very fast down the road mirroring each other.”

Brandolino thought this sounded “pretty weak” as evidence of racing, but said prosecutors could make this argument if they want, although risking their credibility with the jury.

It came out during the hearing that prosecutors have finally broken the encryption to gain access to the defendant’s phone. Brandolino ordered the prosecution to turn the device over to Grossman’s lawyers so the defense can do its own download of the data.

There was further sparring over the pace of the evidence sharing discovery process, with Gould telling the court, “The fact that we have a (Nov. 3) cutoff doesn’t mean you should wait till the cutoff.”

The next hearing in the case was scheduled for Oct. 27.