Tale of the Tape

A video with cops' knuckle sandwiches excised might send an ex-con to prison

The video continues. The officers throw Baker to the ground and strike him repeatedly. In his report, Hoeflinger claims that Baker resisted being handcuffed. The video disputes that claim. For about 30 seconds, Baker's body is lifeless. Finally, Hoeflinger drags him across the floor and into another room. The scene ends at 10:38 p.m. Evidence photographs show Baker bloodied and bruised, with lacerations to the face, his nose gashed and bloody.

At trial, Assistant State Attorney Brad Edwards knew the tape was problematic but didn't believe it was edited. He sold the jury on Hollywood Police Det. Robert Knapp's assertion that a video "duplex" -- when two surveillance cameras record to a single video -- can cause a tape to appear edited. "It still didn't make much sense to me," Edwards admits today. "But I told Knapp, 'If that's your explanation, I'll put it in front of a jury. '"

Baker's attorney, Assistant Public Defender Madeleine Torres, failed to call a video expert to challenge Knapp's testimony. A jury convicted Baker of battery on a law enforcement officer on April 26. At sentencing, he personally appealed to Judge Michael Gates, claiming that the video was edited and that his attorney failed to challenge the evidence. Gates issued a continuance and appointed criminal defense attorney Scott Hecker to review Baker's claims. Hecker hired David Bawarsky, president of a video and multimedia company in Fort Lauderdale, to review the tapes.

Donald Baker after allegedly trying to rough up a Hollywood cop
Donald Baker after allegedly trying to rough up a Hollywood cop

When Bawarsky went to the Hollywood Police Department with a court order to obtain a fresh copy of the original surveillance video, Knapp presented him with a VHS tape including scenes from four different dates from 2002 and 2003. "It was a clean, fresh tape with different dates," Bawarsky says. "That was a red flag." Generally, surveillance tapes include scenes from over a 72-hour period, Bawarsky says. A tape with scenes from two different years and four different days is suspect.

In a 17-page report submitted to the court on November 19, Bawarsky said that all of the surveillance videos had been edited and were missing frames. Some time gaps are as long as nine seconds, he reported. Bawarsky also compared the events on the tape to those reported by Hoeflinger and Graham in their reports. "Most of the time," he wrote, "the officers' statements don't correlate to the actions on the video."

Police may have been trying to cover up evidence of brutality, Bawarsky suspects. "You can see Donald lying with his face down, his legs spread out, and he doesn't move," he says. "But the officer continues to beat him, move him over, rough him up, and then drag him across the floor into an area by himself. One has to wonder about all that and all the different versions of the tape we have."

The Hollywood Police Department has a reputation for brutality (see "Strong Arm of the Law," September 30). Since 1996, 26 plaintiffs have notified the department of intent to sue for excessive use of force. In 1998, 21-year-old Dwight Edman received a $750,000 jury verdict after Hollywood police framed him in a drug bust. A wrongful-death lawsuit against Hollywood police is currently pending in federal court.

Capt. Tony Rode, public information officer for the Police Department, was not aware of claims that the videotape was edited. Any force used by Hoeflinger and Graham was appropriate, Rode assures, after examining the tape that police presented in court. "Donald Baker is half a whack," he adds. "He's been arrested 30, 40 times. He probably thinks he has a good chance of winning a lawsuit now."

Baker walks anxiously around his living room, a piping cup of coffee in his hand. He could use a beer, but the terms of his house arrest prevent him from drinking alcohol. On December 28, Baker will appear before Judge Michael Gates for sentencing. He's pinned his hopes on a motion filed last week asking for a new trial given the appearance that Hollywood police doctored evidence.

"The evidence was tainted," Baker says. "These videos are like DNA evidence. They don't lie."

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