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Acquittal in Second Trial for Officer’s Slaying

July 17, 1987

SAN DIEGO (AP) _ A black man who admitted killing a white police officer and wounding a second was acquitted Thursday of attempted murder and manslaughter in a racially charged case which led to reforms within the police department.

A Superior Court jury found Sagon Penn, 25, innocent of voluntary manslaughter in the 1985 shooting death of Agent Thomas Riggs, 27, and of attempted voluntary manslaughter in the wounding of Officer Donovan Jacobs, 31.

He also was acquitted of attempted murder in the wounding of civilian police observer Sara Pina-Ruiz, 34.

A White former officer, one of 48 defense witnesses, had described Jacobs as ″the most prejudiced white person I’ve ever known″ and ″an ideal candidate for the Ku Klux Klan.″

Two black former officers described Jacobs as overzealous and bigoted. One said Jacobs had called him a ″nigger.″

Testifying as the first of 60 prosecution witnesses in the retrial, Jacobs had denied having racial prejudices or using slurs.

The jury, which deliberated 23 days, deadlocked on charges of involuntary manslaughter and two counts of assault witha deadly weapon. District Attorney Ed Miller is strongly inclined to drop the unresolved counts rather than try the case a third time, said spokesman Steve Casey.

It was the second trial for Penn, whose first trial ended in acquittals on murder and attempted murder charges, but the jury deadlocked on lesser charges after 27 days of deliberations, a county record.

Penn’s attorney, Milton Silverman, maintained throughout the 13-week retrial that Penn had feared for his life.

Jacobs had stopped Penn on March 31, 1985, supposedly for an illegal U-turn and because of the half-dozen people riding in the back of Penn’s pickup was wearing colors which the officer associated with a gang involved in a recent shooting.

The prosecution acknowledged that Penn’s pickup could not have made a U- turn on the narrow street.

Jacobs testified that he had asked Penn for his driver’s license, but Penn handed over his wallet. When Jacobs asked him to remove the license, Penn turned away, Jacobs grabbed him and a fight ensued, the officer said.

Jacobs said he was attempting to handcuff Penn when Penn grabbed his gun and quickly fired six shots, hitting both officers and Pina-Ruiz, who was sitting in Riggs’ patrol car.

Penn then fled in Jacobs’ car, running over one officer, but surendered that night.

Silverman said Penn was defending himself from racial and physical abuse.

Although Penn did not testify, jurors heard taped statements which Penn made shortly after he was arrested. At that time he said he pointed the gun at Jacobs in hopes of getting the officer to stop hitting him, and tha the gun went off when the officer hit him in the arm.

There were about 30 witnesses the altercation, and most said they had heard racial epithets. One bystander had called police from a pay telephone to report that a black man was about to be killed by police officers.

Coleen Riggs, wife of the slain officer, criticized the judical system and called Silverman a ″high-powered attorney who does a very good job of storytelling.″

″I just feel real hurt at the way things have gone,″ Mrs. Riggs said. ″I feel that justice was not served.″

Said Penn’s father, Thomas: ″There’s no victory in anything like this. Someone’s hurt, we all are hurt.″

The case provoked angry denunciations from black leaders, who accused the police department of insensitivity to minorities.

The department responded by forming a citizen’s panel to advise Kolender on dealing with minorities and an Officer Safety Task Force. The department has since added new sections on race relations to officers’ training, and a requirement that all officers wear bullet-proof vests.

Superior Court Judge J. Morgan Lester declared a mistrial on three charges after jurors pronounced themselves deadlocked. They voted 11-1 for acquittal on the lesser included charged of involuntary manslaughter involving Riggs; 10-2 for acquittal on a charge of assault with a deadly weapon on Jacobs and 5-7 for convicton on assault with a deadly weapon on Pina-Ruiz. 3