Friday, February 27, 2015

Cameron Brown 3rd Trial, Pretrial Hearing 20

View of Inspiration Point, Rancho Palos Verdes, CA 
from Portuguese Point. Four year old Lauren Sarene Key, 
fell 120 feet to her death on November 8, 2000.

UPDATED clarity, accuracy
7:35 AM
I got to court early today. Mr. Sprocket drove me on his way to Chino, where he is renting some specialized equipment for a special condenser cleaning job.

Cameron Brown, a former baggage handler for American Airlines is charged with felony murder in the death of his four year old daughter, Lauren. Brown was arrested in November 2003. He's been in the LA County Men's Central Jail ever since. I suspect Brown is currently the longest in-custody defendant waiting trial.

Prosecutor's allege Brown killed Lauren to avoid paying child support. Brown has had two previous trials, the first in 2006 and the second in 2009. Both trials ended in hung juries.

8:00 am

On the 9th floor right after it opens. When I walk down to the left wing hallway, I notice that there is a new Judge in Dept. 105. It’s now strikingly beautiful Judge Charlane Olmedo. Back in December 2013, Judge Olmedo presided over Dept. 100, master calendar court, when DDA Deborah Brazil was sworn in as a Superior Court Judge.

Brown’s wife Patty is not here.

8:17 am

Aaron Laub arrives. He first greets an investigator who is sitting on a bench a ways to my left. This is a totally new investigator. I don’t recognize him. I give Mr. Laub a wave before he takes the end bench seat.

8:22 am

DDA Craig Hum arrives in the hallway.

Marisa Gerber with the LA Times heads this way. She stopped by and said hello. That was nice. I met her during the Barnes/Bolden case. She indicates she's here for a sentencing in Dept. 109. I tell her that's down at the other end of the hall. I tell her which case I'm covering.

Judge Ohta’s pretty court reporter heads this way. She’s carrying a large round tin of Red Vines. She chats a moment with an attorney and DDA Hum before entering Dept. 108.


Inside Dept. 107, I check in with the bailiff that I can use my laptop and take a seat in the second bench row.

There is suited young gentleman in the gallery representing himself on a case. There is another attorney sitting in the jury box. A clerk with the DA’s office comes in and Hum goes over to chat with her.

Laub is at the clerk’s desk. Hum paces in the well. 

A young woman enters and sits in the back row. She speaks to the clerk who is expecting her.  She’s here for the Brown case. She tells the bailiff her name. It’s Ashely York. She tells the bailiff that Judge Lomeli’s clerk invited her.

The clerk comes out and Judge Lomeli comes out to meet the woman. From what I overhear, Ms. York is an independent journalist and documentary filmmaker. She would like to film the trial. This would be for public TV, documentary type of things. She gives her credentials to Judge Lomeli, mentioning she teaches documentary filmmaking. After hearing that, I believe Judge Lomeli is swayed a bit.

I believe I hear Judge Lomeli respond, “I don’t foresee a problem ... but let me talk to counsel first.”

Ms. York goes back to sit in the back row.  Two young college age women come in and sit in the back row. After the bailiff inquires, they respond that they are here to observe for a class.

8:55 am
Judge Lomeli’s court reporter sets up.

After more inquiry by the bailiff, the students thought there was a trial in this courtroom today. The bailiff tells them that Departments 104 and 109 have trials. They thank the bailiff and leave. 

More counsel show up and check in with the bailiff or court clerk.

9:12 am
Mr. Laub and DDA Hum come out and set up at their respective tables. Judge Lomeli states he is ready to rule (probably on motions) in another case, People v. Hsiu Ying Lisa Tseng, a doctor who is charged with murder in the overdose deaths of three patients.

To bring Cameron Brown out, the deputy needs a Sargent. Unfortunately there is only one Sargent available today that is currently being utilized in Dept. 106. There is a bit of a decision whether to take the Tseng case first, but Tseng’s attorney is currently back in the custody area with the defendant.  The court decides that they do not need to bring Brown out an will go ahead with the Brown case.

Judge Lomeli on the record in People v. Brown.  Counsel and court met in chambers to set date for rulings. The prosecution is filing two motions. One to view the crime scene and 1101b motion to allow two prior incidents.  Mr. Laub indicated he has been very busy preparing for trial. There’s voluminous documentation evidence, and he needs additional time to not only respond to the people’s motions but also to file his own motions in limine. Parties agreed to file motions by March 4 and the court will rule on all motions on Thursday, March 12.

They also discussed the prosecution's request to use a jury questionnaire. The court is not inclined but will consider it if it’s a brief questionnaire.  The court feels the questions can be handled orally.

DDA Hum states he will pare down the questionnaire, and if Mr. Laub agrees.  The initial jury panel will be for 110 to 120 jurors, scheduled for March 18. They would have them fill out the questionnaire and take hardships that day as well. They would return on March 23, so that counsel has time to copy and review the jurors responses.  The second panel is scheduled to come in on March 20th.  The court is going to find out if the panel can com on the 19th. Even if the date cannot be changed, they plan to do the same thing with the second panel as with the first. They will have them fill out the questionnaire and take hardship. All jurors would return on March 23.

There is a proposed statement of the case that would be read to the jury.

There is discussion about if the court allows viewing of the scene, what that will entail. The court believes it’s a 1/2 mile trail. He asks DDA Hum about the terrain.  DDA Hum replies that the trial is relatively flat.

DDA Hum states that the only difference he has with the court, is that the statement of the case be read to the jurors before the questionnaire. That might save time. I believe the court agrees. The court asks again that counsel get a short statement about the case together and fax it to him so that can be agreed on by all parties.

The court states that the people will submit a witness list sometime today. The court mentions the one witness Mr. Laub is calling that’s an expert. The court asks DDA Hum to highlight those witnesses likely to testify.

The court or Mr. Laub states for the record why Mr. Brown’s appearance was waived. It was because today's hearing is all calendar hearings and there are not any rulings on any points of contention; the logistics of bringing him into court and for the convenience of court and counsel.

Judge Lomeli addresses Mr. Laub, “I highly suggest that you go visit him [today].” Mr. Laub tells the court he will do that.

Judge Lomeli then brings up the issue of the documentary filmmaker’s request. She stands and states her name, Ashley York.

The court states she would like to film the proceedings. Generally, the court allows requests from the media, but this is the first time for a request like this [documentary]. As long as it is not disruptive, as long as jurors are not filmed. Filming is sometimes denied if it will compromise the case regarding identity, but the court doesn’t believe identity is an issue here.

Mr. Laub has yet to file a formal objection. Mr. Laub states that he is not objecting at this time and states he has never been confronted with this before. On the day that they will argue motions then certainly then, but he has never encountered this.

The court informs Mr. Laub that he needs compelling reasons why he would deny this request. The court asks if it would be live viewed.

Ms. York replies “No. It would be a digital video camera, a small camera, but it’s not live.”  Judge Lomeli responds, “If I allow it, which at this point the court is inclined to do, [waiting on Mr. Laub’s response] you will have strict rules to follow and my bailiff will fill you in.”

I believe the court expands on the rules for filming. He may not allow the filming of specific witnesses, depending on how the witness feels about it.

DDA Hum informs the court that they did file a motion for a handwriting examiner but Mr. Laub is entering into a stipulation which makes the motion unnecessary.

The court states something to the effect that everyone here is respectful, and asks that they make it a smooth trial.

And that’s it. Next court date is March 12 for motions.

After the hearing, Ms. York spoke to Mr. Laub.

Thursday, February 26, 2015

Mary O'Callaghan Trial - Day 2, Jury Selection

T&T full trial coverage can be found HERE.

LAPD Officer Mary O'Callaghan with her attorney Robert Rico
at a pretrial hearing. Photo courtesy KTLA website.

UPDATE 10:30 PM spelling of Judge Bork's name; I blame my dyslexia
UPDATE 8:37 PM spelling, clarity
UPDATE 6:26 PM see below
Thursday, February 26, 2015
10:25 AM
A few minutes after I arrived this morning it appears there has been a big wrench thrown into the trial. At this point, I can't say specifically what it is. The court has had two in camera discussions with attorneys.

As soon as the court goes on the record about what has happened I will give an update as soon as possible.

11:20 AM

Judge Bork apologizes to the jurors. There is an issue that the court is dealing with right now, and I’m asking for your patience. The court tells the jurors they are to return at 2 PM.

This happens sometimes, where the selection process is slowed.  The court then tells jurors about some places they may want to go. Judge Bork mentions Chinatown, Grand Central Market and Little Tokyo, where there are museums and several restaurants where they can get sushi. Judge Brock also mentions the Eli Broad museum west of the courthouse. He also encourages the jurors to walk the new Grand Park. He tells them that the park has a waterfall and Starbucks. “They’re worth seeing,” Judge Brock adds.  He asks them to accept his apologies for the delay and to, “Roll with it. ... Return at 2pm today.”

One juror is asked to stay behind. This juror is excused for just cause.

Once all jurors had left the courtroom, Judge Bork goes on the record. “Counsel approached [this morning]. Mr. Presby brought to the court’s attention that he was notified about other possible evidence out there, if indeed it exists, may be relevant.” The court then tells counsel he will ask them to make a brief record. “Tell me what [it is] you can that’s out there at 1:30pm.  ... What is out there so I can consider if there is good cause to continue or not. ... It’s [hard?] if you know something is out there, as to what it is or how extensive it is in the absence of that evidence. ... Get out there as promptly as you can, find out as much as you can and report back to me at 1:30pm.”

The court then tells DDA Presby to make his record. 

(I have decided at this point, not to mention any officer’s names that were mentioned in court until a decision has been made by the court about this potential new evidence. Sprocket)

DDA Presby states he was approached by Sgt. “A” assigned to a division within LAPD that prosecutes, administrative actions against police officers. Sgt. A advised DDA Presby that there had been a Board of Rights hearing regarding another officer, Officer B (related to the July 22, 2012 event). During the course of the incident, Officer B testified at a Board of Rights hearing that he advised the defendant, Ms. O’Callaghan, after there had been some application of force, words to the effect of, “Stop it, that’s enough, or cut it out.”

Officer B testified he told Ms. O’Callaghan that on the evening of the event. The criminal investigation discovery into the death, by the Force Investigation Division is a separate department. In the criminal investigation transcribed interview of Officer B, those questions were not asked and there were no statements. Sgt. A also told Mr. Presby that another officer, Officer C, testified at another Board of Rights hearing that he heard Officer B say, “Stop it; cut it out.”

DDA Presby tells the court that as soon as he heard this, he directed his IO, Mr. Stone to conduct an interview [with?] about [this testimony?] in front of the Board of Rights. DDA Presby also asked that Sgt. A get those transcripts from the Board of Rights hearings.

After DDA Presby gave those instructions to Mr. Stone and Sgt. A, he saw Mr. Rico in the hallway and informed him of what he just discovered and then brought it to the courts attention.
Sgt. A., who is the person who has access to that material [Board of Rights transcripts] he is attempting to obtain the report of the transcripts of Officer B and Officer C’s testimony, and preparing some kind of statement form with respect to the content of that material or the circumstances surrounding this disclosure this morning.

DDA Presby states that he is going to ask that Mr. Stone contact Sgt. A, that all the transcripts from all the Board of Rights hearings [related to this incident] be provided to the DA’s office so they can then be provided to the defense [via discovery].

In closing, DDA Presby adds, “And as I told your honor, there may be some legal impediments to providing that material. We may need judicial guidance from your honor or another court with production of that material.”

Judge Bork states that before he turns it over to Mr. Rico for his record, he tells counsel, “We are in trial and I’ve got 55 plus jurors to excuse from this problem. I don’t know yet how much of a problem it is and what is out there, and I don’t know what independent or inconsistent statement, or is it ... and it’s hard to judge what’s out there before we have some greater certainty.”

DDA Presby tells the court he will get with the parties to try to provide the material so a decision can be made.

Then Mr. Rico makes his record. He states that around 10:25am he was approached by DDA Presby who informed him about being approached by Sgt. A. Mr. Presby advised Mr. Rico that he was informed that there was a statement made by Officer B at his own Board of Rights hearing, that he had told or made a statement to Officer O’Callaghan to stop or something. Officer C, testified [at a Board of Rights hearing] under oath and that he had supported Officer B of that position and also told her to stop.

Mr. Rico tells the court that in the past 14 months he has been given voluminous discovery. DDA Presby has been more than candid with discovery. My issue is with the due process and the fairness to Ms. O’Callaghan. I know that what ever testimony that has been given [at these Board of Rights hearings] would have been taken down, just like we have a court reporter here and those statements would be transcribed if not already transcribed. 

Mr. Rico’s position is clear, that this is rather Brady, discoverable. It is a prior inconsistent statement to be used for impeachment purposes. Mr. Rico closes with, “I’ll leave it at that, your honor.” I believe Mr. Rico adds that it greatly impacts his clients right to a fair trial. It greatly impacts the jury in this matter. Mr. Rico also mentions something to the effect that it cannot be reviewed overnight. Mr. Rico will ask for a continuance of the proceedings if that evidence does exist.

The trial has until 2pm when jurors come back.

Judge Bork again instructs counsel that he needs their help in determining what is out there. Is the information out there? Is it transcribed? Is it in fact inconsistent statements? How does the court get it into your hands. Judge Bork requests that Sgt. A be present at 1:30pm. I believe the court adds that he knows there are issues as to what can be turned over .... and when personnel protections that must be  made there. The court states he needs to know what is out there, and the defendant has a right to a speedy trial. The judge again requests that Sgt. A be present. If he needs a city attorney, the court is sure one could be present. The court states he needs St. A’s assistance and everyone’s assistance to see if there is a good cause basis for continuance or not.

Counsel ordered back at 1:30pm with as many answers as they can get.

1:35 PM
Back on the record. DDA Presby tells the court that he has received a single page document from Sgt. A. However, because the information contains personal information regarding LAPD officers, he may be committing a misdemeanor if he turns this document over to the defense. DDA Presby is willing to present the document to the court under seal. The court then could read the document to see if the information in the document gives the court guidance on how to proceed. DDA Presby states that the only method to turning this information over to the defense is through Pitchess motions.

There's more discussion that I'll detail later. In closing, Mr. Rico moves for a 1050 motion for a continuance of the trial to preserve his client's right to a fair trial. DDA Presby joins in that 1050 motion. Judge Bork asks the parties to hold on. He's going to consider this for five minutes.

1:58 PM
Back on the record.
Is the matter submitted?  Court finds itself in a most unfortunate situation a panel of 60 jurors sworn, most of whom are out in the hallway so to speak. But it has come to the courts attention there is probative material that cannot be obtained by a simple court order. There is the Pitchess process that must be followed. Based on what has been presented to me, there is evidence that must be disclosed to both parties. It's very possibly Brady evidence. And it must be litigated for it to get to the defense.

As much as I'd like to move forward, I have no alternative but to declare a mistrial, because there is evidence to declare a mistrial and continue the case.  He will excuse the jury first then they will set up a new date.

3:35 PM
T&T readers. I'm back home. Over the next few hours I'll be transcribing my rough notes from the afternoon session and posting in a few hours.

Judge Bork set the next pretrial hearing date in the O'Callaghan case for April 2nd in Dept. 131.

Below are my updated, detailed notes for the afternoon session as promised. Sprocket.

Around 1:30pm I enter Dept. 118. Counsel are already at their respective tables. Off the record Mr. Rico asks the court how he feels about water on the table. Judge Bork replies, “If it’s in a small, discreet container, I’m okay with that.”

 Judge Bork says, “Back on the record. No jurors are present. Thank you for your promptness counsel.”

DDA Presby addresses the court. “I have been provided with a one pager report from Sgt. A, who is also in court. ... I believe I may be committing a misdemeanor if I turned that over. ... I think we need to go through the Pitchess process before we turn this over.  ... While the people may obtain these protective personnel records ... we are prohibited from disseminating those records absent a court order.”

DDA Presby continues that he has a one page memorandum from Sgt. A. “I can provide that to your honor under seal. ... Your honor can review that. ... Maybe that would be enough in respect of the 1050 motion.”

Judge Bork asks, “Are you able to tell me what that is without ... jeopardizing it’s possible confidentiality?” DDA Presby responds, “It is a memorandum to Detective Pete Stone from Stg. A dated today regarding a Board of Rights [Hearing].”

Judge Bork responds, "So your suggestion is that I view it ... that it may give me additional insight whether or not there is discovery evidence out there that would need to be turned over or sought, and could constitute good cause for a mistrial and a continuance?”  DDA Presby replies, “Yes.” 

The court asks but Mr. Rico does not want to be heard at this point.

Judge Bork states, “Since I’m aware of Pitchess and his prodigy as to confidentiality as to personnel records ... I will review that and seal it. ... If I determine that it does not need to be under seal then I will either offer it back to you and or unseal it.”

DDA Presby states, “We offer it under seal.” He also adds that he does believe that it contains protective personnel records.

Judge Bork reviews the document then addresses counsel. “Without revealing what is in the memorandum, there is an indication that there was an attachment.” DDA Presby tells the court that he did not receive an attachment with the single page document.

Judge Bork tells the parties that he is striking through that information on the document that states there is an attachment. “I have not read any transcripts and read the one page memo only,” Judge Bork adds.

Judge Bork addresses DDA Presby, “So your review would state that Board of Rights needs Pitchess?” DDA Presby replies, “Not necessarily for the DA’s office but certainly for dissemination to the defense.”

That hearing could contain Brady material.

The court expresses “great frustration here.” Judge Bork adds, “I’ve got 55 jurors that will be back in 22 minutes and have interrupted their lives for two days. If there ever is a time that we should have information relevant to a defendant ... but we’re faced with the possibility of [continuance?].”

Mr. Rico addresses the court. “I share the court’s frustration. I believe the fair rights of my client and due process supersedes the concerns of both myself, the counsel and the court and believe the 1050 should be granted.”

Judge Bork states, “I have every reason to believe that both counsel are acting in good faith. At some token, it is beyond me how we could have gotten to this state. ... That a person is charged with a crime where that person could go to prison and we don’t have full discovery.”

DDA Presby adds, “I understand the court’s frustration in this area. ... This area is a very complex area and the privacy rights afforded to police officers is a significant challenge to both sides.” Judge Bork replies, “One or both of you, tell me what each of your motions is. But I want to know so our record is clear.”

Mr. Rico puts his motion first. “On behalf of Mary O’Callaghn, to continue this matter according to section 1050. There is impeachment material [that?] exists, and those statements were given at a protective, private hearing, that can only be disclosed via Pitchess. ... [My client] could not have a fair trial if there is Brady material that exists. ... The people have been candid in their disclosure. This has not been at the error of the defendant.” Mr. Rico asks for a motion to continue the case and to declare a mistrial.

DDA Presby states, “The people join in the motion to continue. I don’t believe jeopardy has attached. I don’t know if the proper remedy is to declare a mistrial or to quash the [voir dire?]. ... I do apologize to the court to derailing these proceedings at this point. ... Only discovered [this material today]. ... Given the privileges that are given to the officers and to the City of Los Angeles, they are the only ones that can waive the Pitchess process.” 

Judge Bork asks, “Why can we not get someone from the city attorney’s office to determine if there is a willingness to waive?”  DDA Presby answers, “It has to be on a written motion and it has to be 21 days notice. ... And besides, they are going to gather the material and make any objections themselves. ... The officer that’s involved, Officer B needs to be [involved/notified].”

Judge Bork tells counsel, “We have 18 minutes until our jurors get back. I’ll take [this] under submission for about five minutes.”  Presby then tells the court that he does have the citation where, he could be committing a misdemeanor. I miss getting the correct citation number. Presby reads from the citation, “Hold in essence that disclosure of peace officer police records can constitute a misdemeanor crime according to the government code. ... The proper method to disclosing that material is through Pitchess.”  Judge Brock rules the one page memo be sealed and takes this under submission. He tells counsel, “Don’t go too far.” Judge Bork leaves the bench and goes back into chambers.

It seems like less than five minutes goes by and Judge Bork is back on the bench.

It’s 2pm. The jurors file in. I have to stand against the wall while the jurors take all the available seats. It’s difficult to near impossible to hold my laptop and type, but I do my best.

Judge Bork thanks the jurors and hopes they were able to enjoy the noon lunch hour. He informs the jurors that there is a piece of potential evidence that he can’t get and that counsel can’t get. He can’t move forward with the trial and it’s deeply frustrating. He tells the jurors that everyone has acted in good faith. There is no other remedy but to declare a mistrial. I’m going to excuse the jury. Everyone has done their duty, but we are unable to move forward with the trial. I apologize, but I’m grateful for your service.

Judge Bork then talks about the the jury system in the US.

“For well over 200 years, we have solved our disputes by trial by jury. ... It was brought over from England well over 200 years ago. ... For all that time, rather than fight it out in an alley, ... we ask folks like you to come forward and decide the case. ... But that’s how we solve our problems in this country, trial by jury. ... They know their case will be decided by folks like you.”  Judge Bork mentions the inconvenience that the jurors have endured, and that many of them are not being paid. He then tells the jurors that the only time that we did not have trial by jury was in [1765?] when the sovereign, King George suspended that, then we had the Revolutionary War. ... I’m grateful for your time and patience but my hope is that you will have another opportunity to do that [serve on a jury].”

He tells the group to turn in their orange tags and go back to the 11th floor jury room, not the fifth floor jury room and turn in their other badge to get credited for their jury service.

After the courtroom clears, I get to sit back down on a bench. Judge Bork states, “All jurors have now left and all parties are now present.” The next date on this matter, will be set back to Department 131. Counsel spoke earlier about an April 2 return date. Mr. Rico wants the April 2 date for a return. DDA Presby agrees.

Judge Bork addresses the defendant. “Ms. O’Callaghan, do you agree that we can set your next date as April 2?” She agrees. She is ordered back to Dept. 131 on April 2.

And that's it. I do not know at this time if I will be able to attend any future hearings in this case. It’s my understanding that the Cameron Brown trial is scheduled to start in mid March or early April of this year. I’ve tracked the Cameron Brown case since the second trial in 2009.

Mary O'Callaghan Trial - Day 1, Jury Selection

T&T full trial coverage can be found HERE.

LAPD Officer Mary O'Callaghan with her attorney Robert Rico
at a pretrial hearing. Photo courtesy KTLA website.

Wednesday, February 25, 2015
I'm at the downtown Los Angeles Criminal Court building. I got a notice a few days ago that the case against LAPD Officer Mary O'Callaghan was going to trial in a few days.

Mary O'Callaghan is charged with assault under color of authority in connection with the July 22, 2012 arrest of Alesia Thomas. Media reports indicate Ms. O'Callaghan is facing up to three years in state prison if convicted.

While in police custody, Ms. Thomas lost consciousness, went into cardiac arrest and died. The investigative report prepared by the DA's Justice System Integrity Division describes the events and the conclusions that were reached.

O'Callaghan was charged on October 10, 2013 and arraigned on October 15. Interestingly, O'Callaghan waived a preliminary hearing. It is unknown why the defense made this decision. Waving a prelim is not unusual; it happens.

When I arrive at the elevator bay in the lobby, I spot Pat Kelly from the Public Information Office. I ride the elevator up with her to the 13th floor. Pat is handling media requests for another case that is being heard in Dept. 100, the Olivia Cullbreath case. Cullbreath is charged with multiple counts of murder in a wrong-way car crash. I tell Pat I'm here for the O'Callaghan case.

Once inside Dept. 100, master calendar court, I see Deputy District Attorney Shannon Presby in the gallery. DDA Presby and his co-counsel Paul Nunez successfully prosecuted Detective Stephanie Lazarus of first degree murder in the death of Sherri Rasmussen. DDA Presby is sitting with another gentleman, whom I'm guessing is a co-counsel or his investigating officer. When DDA Presby sees me, he comes over to say hello. I tell him I'm here for his case.

I keep checking the gallery for other prosecutors I might know but I don't see anyone. I do see a familiar defense attorney, Kelly Gerner.  Gerner was part of the team that represented Lois Goodman.

Over in the seats to the right of the bench are a couple of cameramen. Pat Kelly heads over to them. They are here to video Cullbreath.

In the back of the gallery on the right side, I spot Ms. O'Callaghan and her attorney Robert Rico. A female friend is sitting beside O'Callaghan.

The O'Callaghan case is the second case called when Judge Scott Gordon, the Assistant Supervising Judge, takes the bench. The case is transferred to Dept. 118 on the 11th floor.  DDA Presby takes the court's case file and packs up. I also head towards the 11th floor. 

Dept. 118 is at the end of the left wing on the right side. On the door it states Anne H. Egerton, but when I step inside a man is on the bench, Judge Terry A. Bork.  Judge Bork has several cases on his calendar. There are two people at the prosecution table and a couple defense attorneys in the well. There are a few people in the gallery.  It looks like the court is quite busy at the moment.

I sit in the third bench row. Behind me are Ms. Callaghan, her friend and her counsel.  The courtroom is almost a mirror image of Dept. 108, Judge Ohta's courtroom. The only difference is, the jury box is slightly smaller. There are only 14 seats in the jury box instead of 18. This means the front row of the gallery seating is longer.

I note something different in Dept. 118 than any other courtroom I've been in on the 9th floor. There are no signs in the front row that say, "Do Not Sit Here" or "No Seating Without Permission."

I've seen seen Judge Bork's clerk before in other courtrooms, but I don't know her name. There is a small plant on the far corner of her desk. She has beautiful hair, that seems like it changes color. I'm really drawn to how the fluorescent light bounces off of her hair. First I think it's light brown, then it looks like it's dark blond, then it looks like there is a hint of red. I have to force myself to check out the rest of Judge Bork's courtroom. The court reporter is a tall, elegant black woman. Her hair is pulled back in a tight bun and she's wearing gold loop earrings. Judge Bork is a white man with balding hair. I'm also struck by the bailiff. He is almost the spitting image of actor Domineck Lombardozzi, who played “Herc” in David Simon’s HBO series, The Wire. The only difference is, this bailiff is slimmer and has a much more handsome cut to his jaw.

9:30 AM
DDA Presby arrives. He hands a witness list to Mr. Rico. DDA Presby heads over to the clerk's desk getting various papers logged in. She is stamping every document and it makes a loud sound each time.

More attorneys file in that I saw in Dept. 100, their cases transferred to this courtroom. One of them is Kelly Grerner.

I overhear DDA Presby and the defense attorney chat about the possibility that they will pick a jury at 1:30 pm. I hear the clerk tell counsel that the Judge will speak to them off the record. I see both attorneys introduce themselves to Judge Bork who shakes both their hands. I hear DDA Presby explain to the court the filings that he’s already made.

After they step away from the judge’s bench, DDA Presby confirms to me that they are back at 1:30 PM. At some point in the morning, DDA Presby told me that the man with him is his investigating officer, Pete Stone, with the LAPD's Force Investigation Division. In the elevator down, I mention to Officer Stone that I met another officer in his unit, Thomas Townsend. Townsend was the IO on the Rafael Martinez case.

I head down to the cafeteria to start writing.  The cafeteria is ice cold so I decide to take a walk outside to try to warm up. I walk to a cafe past LAPD Headquarters to get a cup of tea and find a warm, outside seat where I can write.

1:32 PM
Back inside Dept. 118, DDA Presby sets up his files. I note that there are many seats in the well in front of the jury box and along the dividing wall. The seats all have papers on them. Judge Bork asks counsel back in chambers.

1:50 PM
We're still waiting in the gallery. The clerk is very busy. She's sorting papers and inserting them into various case files.

1:55 PM
Judge Bork comes out and asks his clerk how long it would take for them to get jurors. Then all parties come out. The judge states that he's going to order a panel for 2:30 PM. They will get 60 jurors. Ms. O'Callaghan leaves the gallery and joins her counsel at the defense table. Judge Bork goes on the record. The parties state their appearances for the record.

The court states that the case was transferred from Dept. 100 to this court for jury trial. A panel has been ordered. Trial is estimated to take 10 days.

The judge addresses media requests. An independent journalist requests permission to live tweet the trial via either phone or computer. There are also two media requests to film the trial.  The defense objects to all the media requests due to prejudice to the defendant's right to a fair trial. The defense also objects to the impact the media coverage might have on the jury.

The people's position is no objection to the media coverage. The trial is an open proceeding and there is public interest.

Judge Bork rules on the request from an independent journalist, whose name is Thandi. (Thandi's twitter feed can be found HERE.) The request is granted as long as the laptop makes no audible noise in the courtroom.  I'm surprised. I've never covered a case downtown where the court allowed live tweeting from inside the courtroom. Judge Bork rules there is to be no audio recording and no photography. 

The media requests from KTLA and KCAL are granted but limited to opening statements, closing arguments and verdict. Judge Bork mentions the risk of jurors being shown. The cameras must be set along the back wall of the courtroom.

Judge Bork then makes a disclosure on the record. Prior to taking the bench in 2007, when he was Deputy District Attorney, he spent approximately 1-2 years in the JSID unit. "My time was 16 years ago. ... Then in the late summer of 2007, ... appointed to the bench." Judge Bork also mentions his prior work in private practice. Judge Bork feels his prior assignments do not merit recusal. He believes he can be fair to both sides. He asks counsel if they wish to be heard. No one wishes to be heard on his ruling.  Judge Bork also states that 12-15 witnesses may be called. 

Judge Bork then talks about how voir dire will go. Each side will get 10 peremptory challenges. He explains that he packs the well with 24 potential jurors. They will seat 12 in the box and the rest in the other chairs in the well. Counsel will get 1 minute each to question each juror, after the court has asked some preliminary questions. He tells counsel to budget their time accordingly. The court asks if counsel has a jury instruction draft. DDA Presby has a draft pattern for instruction 149.

The court then explains that once they get their panel today, he will conduct hardship questioning on the first 60 jurors. Tomorrow, they will start with voir dire.

2:15 PM 
There is a break until the jurors arrive. I take the time to contact the PIO to get approval to live blog the trial. After some back and forth, the court clerk comes over to me. I introduce myself and explain what I'd like to do. I agree to no audio or video recording. 

3:05 PM
Jurors arrive in Dept. 118.  The court asks the media to leave the benches and stand against the wall. I try to type with one hand while holding my laptop. 

Once all the jurors are seated Judge Bork tells the jurors about the case and introduces his court staff. He explains that everyone who works in the court takes an oath. Witnesses take an oath, and jurors are expected to take an oath as well.  Jurors are asked to stand and the oath is administered.

Judge Bork explains that if any juror has a question, they are to write it on a piece of paper and give it to the bailiff. He also explains to them about speaking in full words, and the difficulty of transcribing Uh-huh and Um. He also talks about asking and answering questions in a way that's understood.

The court has counsel introduce themselves and then reads the charges against Ms. O'Callaghan. He explains the time frame of the trial and that they will start about 10:30 AM or 10:45 AM each day and end at 4;15 PM. Possibly start even earlier on Friday's, by 10 AM.  The judge then goes on to explain financial hardship excuses. He will only excuse for extreme financial hardship at this time.

He tells the gallery that if they do not want to be heard on financial hardship at this time, then they can leave now and report back tomorrow at 10:30 AM.  If they want to be heard on hardship, they will call each juror one at a time and he will hear them. He then tells the potential jurors that there are media outlets in the courtroom and there may be media interest. He tells them that if they are watching the news and the case comes on, the court requests that they immediately turn the channel. No media, no Internet, no Twitter. He tells them they need to restrict what they hear about the case to sworn testimony and sworn evidence.

The court will now hear hardship cases. About 12-15 jurors hold up their hands to plead hardship. All the jurors exit the courtroom. Those who want to plead hardship line up in the hallway in number order. Eighteen jurors line up and are called before the court one by one.  Judge Bork is not sympathetic to people who state they will have trouble paying their rent or student loans. A few people misunderstood that this was only for financial hardship, and not because they don't understand English very well.  All of those jurors, he orders back. After the last juror is heard, court is adjourned until tomorrow at 10:30 AM.

To be continued in Day 2.....

Tuesday, February 24, 2015

Sherri Rae Rasmussen 2/7/1957 - 2/24/1986

Sherri Rae Rasmussen, date unknown
Photo copyright: Jane Goldberg; all rights reserved.

UPDATE: corrected Sherri's title, clarity, factual content, photo credits, victim impact statements
29 years ago today, Sherri Rae Rasmussen was murdered in her home by Stephanie Lazarus. At the time, Lazarus was a LAPD Officer and former girlfriend of Sherri's new husband, John Ruetten. 

Sherri was the Director of Critical Care Nursing at Glendale Adventist Hospital. Her new husband John was an Electrical Engineer and worked for Micropolis, a computer company that manufactured disk drives. They were a couple very much in love who had plans for a long future together. They had no thought of the tragic events that would derail their lives.

Sunday, the day before, was a fun filled day for the couple. John had given Sherri three red roses, to celebrate their three month wedding anniversary. Early in the day, Sherri's younger sister Teresa and her husband Brian drove from Loma Linda, California for a visit. Brian had wanted to check out a new aquarium store that had opened in Van Nuys, not far from Sherri and John's home. Afterwards, the couples played miniature golf at a local amusement park before Brian and Teresa headed home. Later that afternoon, a college friend of John's stopped by for a visit. To cap off the evening, Sherri and John took a leisurely drive to Simi Valley to see a movie.

When Sherri and John woke Monday morning, Sherri decided to stay home from work.

Sometime after John left for work, around 7:30 am, Lazarus gained entrance to Sherri and John's home. To this day, it is unknown whether Lazarus picked the lock on the front door or if the front door was left unlocked after John's friend's visit, the day before.
When John came home from work around 6:00 pm, he found Sherri dead on the living room floor. There had been a violent struggle in the living room, where Sherri fought for her life.

In the initial 1986 investigation, homicide detectives theorized Sherri had interrupted a burglary in progress. The living room was in disarray. Part of an entertainment unit was damaged. Two video components were left on the floor near the stairs. Eventually, the case went cold.

In 2005, DNA testing of the bite mark swab collected from Sherri's arm revealed her killer was a woman. With that new information, detectives in the LAPD Cold Case Unit looked at male-female burglary teams. However, the case went cold a second time.

The case file was eventually sent back to the Van Nuys Division. In early 2009, Detective James Nuttall opened the murder book and put fresh eyes on the crime scene photographs. The rest is history.

Stephanie Lazarus, a Detective in the LAPD Art Theft Unit, was arrested on June 5, 2009 and convicted of first degree murder on March 8, 2012.  On May 11, 2012, Judge Robert Perry sentenced Lazarus to 27 years to life. Lazarus is currently incarcerated at the California Institution for Women, in Chino, California. She requested the transfer sometime ago.

I'll never forget covering this trial. The victim impact statements brought Sherri to life in a way nothing else could, and are a testament to how much she was loved by family and friends.

 Rasmussen sisters, Sherri, Connie, Teresa, late 1970's.
Photo copyright Rasmussen family, all rights reserved.

Her sister Teresa said:
November 23, 1985 was one of the happiest days of my sister's life, her wedding day.  It was also my fifth wedding anniversary.
She also said:
I have learned over the years before and during the trial that Sherri still inspires. The prosecuting attorneys, detectives, neighbors, co-workers and the press have been affected by what a great person Sherri was, even though some did not know her personally.  Both of my sons know Sherri to be a great and loving person, but I wish they would have had the chance to know her personally. 
Sherri's sister Connie spoke about their years together in nursing school:

 Loma Linda Nursing School Graduation, June 1977.
Photo copyright Rasmussen family, all rights reserved.
Sherri was my best friend; we shared problems and secrets, joys and sorrows.  She was always there....ready to listen, willing to help, telling you just what you needed to hear. ... 
She had a special intellectual gift, which she tried to keep a secret, but all that worked with her or knew her, knew she had a special gift, which she choose to use to help others.  During our senior year at Loma Linda University she was asked to join Sigma Theta Tau Nursing Professional Honor Society.  Because I was not asked as well, she refused to join.  We both were inducted after finishing our graduate studies.  She always considered others before herself. ...

Throughout the closing statements I felt Sherri was present in this courtroom standing up for herself.  (In) Sherri's effort to survive, she captured the scientific evidence needed to identify her murderer.  It is fitting that science was the key in the prosecution.  I can hear Sherri saying with gusto "YES!" because scientific advances had made it possible to bring justice in this case.  How fitting that science, the field of study Sherri loved, has brought her closure.
Covering this trial, I had the opportunity to meet Sherri's family and friends. Through them, I've learned what a truly gifted and loving person Sherri was. Sherri's life and her values continue to inspire me to this day.

Best friend Jayne Goldberg and Sherri at Club Med.
Photo copyright Jayne Goldberg, all rights reserved.

For a detailed account of the investigation and how the case was eventually solved, read Matthew McGough's piece, The Lazarus File, published in the June 2011 issue of The Atlantic. Matthew McGough interviewed Lazarus in 2008, as part of his research for a story on art theft.

T&T full trial coverage can be found HERE.