Investigator acquitted of witness tampering

— Lester Ditto, a civilian internal-affairs investigator at the West Memphis Police Department, was acquitted Thursday of all three federal witness-tampering charges he faced.

It took jurors less than half a day of deliberations, after a nearly two-week trial in a Little Rock federal courtroom, to clear Ditto of accusations that in 2010, while conducting an internal-affairs investigation, he intimidated two female dispatchers into lying in recorded statements he took from them, to protect an officer.

The women testified that they heard a commotion in the department’s lobby about 7 p.m. June 14, 2010, and hurried out of their dispatch room to see officer Scott McCall in the lobby with his hands around the neck of a handcuffed man who had been spewing hateful remarks.

They said they pulled McCall off the man and one of them walked the officer into the dispatch room to defuse the volatile situation.

U.S. Department of Justice attorneys said the man’s remarks aggravated already-raw feelings among the department’s “brotherhood” when he shouted that two other officers “deserved what they got” when they were shot to death during a traffic stop only three weeks earlier.

The dispatchers said Ditto, who interviewed them separately several days later, didn’t overtly tell them to omit the choking when they gave recorded statements about what they saw during the fracas. But they said that between listening to them tell him what really happened and starting the audio recorder to make a record for his official investigation, he pointed out that no cameras had recorded the incident and asked them to think about who should prevail — the officer or a “dirtbag.”

Both women testified that Ditto’s careful phrasing, which he prefaced by saying he didn’t want them to lie, made clear that he wanted them to omit any mention of the choking. Both said they went along because they feared they could lose their jobs otherwise.

It was only months later, after the man, Michael Young, filed a civil-rights complaint with the FBI, saying he’d been choked, that the women — again, in separate interviews — told an FBI agent they had lied in their recorded statements. Their “confessions,” according to federal prosecutors, came about only after the federal agent showed them pictures he had found of them reenacting the choking in the dispatch room.

Ditto didn’t testify. Defense attorney Erin Cassinelli conducted lengthy cross-examinations of the government’s main witnesses to show inconsistencies and to cast doubt on the dispatchers’ credibility.

She also presented testimony from a string of witnesses who bolstered Ditto’s reputation as a man of integrity and to cast doubt on the dispatchers’ reputations for truthfulness.

One of the dispatchers was forced to admit that she had been fired from a previous job as a licensed practical nurse for actions involving dishonesty. She admitted she had mishandled a dispute between a nurse she supervised and a patient, had administered a drug to the patient without a doctor’s approval, and then failed to immediately chart her actions. She called it a costly mistake that also cost her her nursing license.

McCall was tried in April by another federal jury on a charge of violating Young’s civil rights. That jury rejected a felony civil-rights charge sought by prosecutors but convicted McCall of a lesserincluded misdemeanor version of the charge.

Young, meanwhile, has a civil-rights lawsuit pending against the department.

The trial was held before U.S. District Judge James Moody, who last week considered granting a mistrial after a federal prosecutor misspoke in front of jurors. Moody said he would grant a mistrial if the defense demanded it, but that if he did so, Ditto stood to be retried at a later date. Cassinelli then withdrew her request, and the trial proceeded.

Arkansas, Pages 13 on 07/27/2012