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Jury awards reporter $1.5M in May Day melee case

In this May 1, 2007 file photo, Los Angeles Police Metro Division officers advance on a crowd during an immigration rally in MacArthur Park.
AP Photo/Chad K. Uyeno, File
In this May 1, 2007 file photo, Los Angeles Police Metro Division officers advance on a crowd during an immigration rally in MacArthur Park.

A local television camerawoman who accused LAPD police officers of using unreasonable force and injuring her during a pro-immigration rally in MacArthur Park three years ago was awarded more than $1.7 million today by a Los Angeles jury.

Jurors awarded the damages to Fox11 camerawoman Patricia Ballaz, who said she was injured during the May 1, 2007, rally. The jury awarded KPCC radio reporter Patricia Nazario $39,000, but the panel could not reach a verdict on allegations made by Fox11 reporter Christina Gonzalez.

"This has been an extremely difficult and exhausting road to travel,'' Ballaz said. "And I'm grateful to the jury for holding the Los Angeles Police Department accountable for its unwarranted attack upon my body and soul. I'd also like to express my sincere appreciation to the Los Angeles city officials and high-ranking members of the LAPD who did not sit idly by, but expressed their outrage at the wrongdoing that occurred at MacArthur Park. Their respect for the truth will always be meaningful to me.

"May 1, 2007 is a day that I will never forget, it is a day that has changed my life forever,'' she said. "My genuine hope is that this trial and its verdict will serve as a strong reminder to the LAPD to think twice about using excessive force in any kind of situation. Our free speech and civil rights are precious and if we can't rely on the police to protect them, who can we trust?''

Deputy City Attorney Jessica B. Brown, who defended the city and the LAPD during trial of the journalists' lawsuit, could not be reached for immediate comment on the jury's decision.

In her closing argument, Brown told jurors the journalists' legal rights were not infringed upon.

She said Ballaz and Gonzalez ignored seven warnings from police to stay out of the line on which officers were advancing through the park on May 1, 2007.

Repeatedly saying the objective evidence shows that many of the plaintiffs' claims about being abused "strain the bounds of credibility,'' Brown said the journalists were bound to obey police orders to get out of the skirmish line in the same way as anyone else there.

"They are not kings; nobody gives them special rights,'' Brown said.

Deputy City Attorney Todd Hayward, addressing the newswomen's damages claims, said the plaintiffs did not prove their claims to be sufferers of post-traumatic stress disorder.

Attorneys for the journalists argued during the trial that police violated their constitutional rights in a manner that drew the ire of the mayor and police chief.

"There was a war against the media out there that day,'' Ballaz's attorney, Browne Greene, told the jury.

Greene told the panel that his client, now 51, will never work in her field again and has about $2.4 million in damages in total for past and present lost wages, as well as medical costs.

He showed jurors photos of Ballaz with a bruise near her right breast -- allegedly from being hit with a baton -- as well as another of an injured, discolored foot.

Both Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa and then-LAPD Chief William Bratton found fault with the actions of the elite Metro Division officers who confronted the journalists, Greene said.

In late October, the District Attorney's Office announced that no criminal charges would be filed against any LAPD personnel for actions during the May Day rally.

In February 2009, the council agreed to pay nearly $13 million to settle lawsuits filed by attendees who said they were injured or mistreated during the rally.

The settlement reached last year covered 297 individuals who were part of eight consolidated cases and a class-action lawsuit filed in federal court.

"The jury found that the LAPD failed to adhere to its own rules on crowd control and in protecting the Constitutional rights of the news media covering the 2007 May Day rally in MacArthur Park, including Patti Ballaz' free speech rights,'' Greene said in a statement after the jury's verdict was
announced. "Patti's victory today is bittersweet as she will bear the physical and emotional scars of that fateful day for the rest of her life.''

During the trial, Brown expressed skepticism about the women's medical claims. She said some had pre-existing medical conditions and that there was little evidence to support their claims that their physical states were worsened by the confrontation with police.

Brown also said most of the members of the media covering the rally that day obeyed the police and got their stories. He said the three women could have still gotten the job done had they done so from different vantage points within the park.