Thursday, August 25, 2011
Stephaine Lazarus at one of her early court appearances.
Photo credit: Mark Boster, LA Times
I arrive into downtown LA just in time to make the hearing if the security lines in the Criminal Court Building are not long and there isn't a mad crush at the elevator bays for the lower floors. I'm in luck. There's virtually no line to speak of. Just as I'm about to walk through the security scanners I get a tap on my shoulder from behind. It's 48 Hours Producer Greg Fisher who totally missed the last Lazarus hearing. I had received a heads-up the day before that this would be a very short hearing so I wasn't expecting many people to be there.
When I get inside the courtroom my favorite seating area is taken up by a black couple I've never seen before and I make a guess that they are here for a different hearing. I shuffle down to the second row and Greg and I sit a bit to the left behind Nels and Loretta Rasmussen. The Rasmussen's are fine people. Fisher asks Loretta if she received his voice mail but she did not have time to check her messages. No matter how short it will be, every time there is a hearing in the case of their daughter's murder, they make the seven-hour drive to Los Angeles. Sitting in the same front row at the far right is Lazarus' mother. The two Robbery-Homicide detectives are in their usual seats on the far right, second bench row.
8:33 am: Lazarus is brought into the courtroom. She is not wearing glasses today but I notice that she has some sort of plain black hair clip in the center-top towards the back. Her hair from the front crown area is pulled straight back and held down with this clip. I note to my friend Greg that she looks much paler than usual. Lazarus has been incarcerated since early June, 2009 and this is what happens when you don't have access to sunlight for over two years.
Greg sees a defense attorney he knows over by the clerks desk and he waits for the right opportunity to go chat with him. He's a tall, handsome black man that Greg tells me used to work in Johnny Cochran's firm but left and started his own. Later, he sits with him in the back row in deep conversation during the entire hearing.
Lazarus turns around and gives her mother a big smile. She's wearing the white, long-sleeved long-john type shirt under her orange jail-house jumpsuit. The beefy defense investigator who's name I've forgotten is here along with Courtney and Mark Overland. (Overland finally has a new web site up detailing his experience and new partnership with his daughter. For a time there, I could find very little information about Mark on the web.)
8:37 am: Judge Perry takes the bench and Shannon Presby greets the judge. "Good Morning, your honor." Lazarus appears to be whispering intently with Courtney Overland. Judge Perry makes the standard announcements that we are on the record and names the prosecution and defense team. This is a status conference to determine additional (rounds?) of hearings. Overland has a motion for a Kelly/Frye hearing which Judge Perry asks Overland if it will require the taking of testimony. Overland responds, "Yes." From what I'm understanding, apparently part of the motion is asking the Judge to order certain DNA evidence be provided to the defense (for their own testing).
Shannon Presby states he has not had the opportunity to contact SERI (At first, I thought he said "sera" or "serology" but this is an independent testing laboratory.). The prosecution would like time to digest the defense motion since they just received it (yesterday or today). Presby states he's not clear on exactly what it is regarding the DNA that relates to the Kelly/Frye hearing.
Perry states this will be a two-step process. First, we will determine if we will have a Kelly/Frye hearing then... (snip) I think Presby then tells Judge Perry that it (the motion) did not seem to go to the accuracy of the (Key-Meyer?) test, (but the?) technique to use the test, not the science.
Overland states that he can answer the question the prosecution has. It relates to a "three prong." (Unfortunately, I can not decipher my own notes here so I'm going on memory.) The Kelly/Frye hearing is the first "prong" and the (DNA?) order relates to the documentation required (in the DNA testing) that needs to be reviewed to see that it meets the second "prong." (I didn't totally understand what Overland said.)
Matthew McGough from The Atlantic arrives and slips quietly into the back row.
I think it's the prosecution who states, "All we need is to reach out to SERI....."
Perry states that he also has a motion regarding firearms and a motion from the defense requesting a personnel file. Overland states the City Attorney has been served. Judge Perry tells the parties that he will contact the City Attorney and see if we can get a fire going. Presby asks that once that personnel file is turned over (to the defense) they are requesting a copy (reciprocal discovery). Judge Perry has no problem with that. Judge Perry is then asking all parties about their schedule. "I can tell you my schedule. I have a trial set to start September 12th. I have a trial set to start September 19th. I would like very much if possible to (?) have or (a?) ruling on motions early in September, the 8th or 9th." I believe Overland states September 8th is not a good day for him. Judge Perry asks Overland for his calendar for early September, and there may be a problem if experts are going to be called and if they would be ready (available) by then.
Judge Perry then goes onto say he doesn't even know if we are going to have a hearing yet. He doesn't have a response from the people (regarding Overland's motion for the Kelly/Frye hearing.) "Can you get it filed next week?" Judge Perry asks the prosecution. Presby states they could get it filed by the end of next week; that would be practical. Judge Perry asks, "How about August 31st?" Presby responds, "Then, that's when we'll file it." I believe it's now that Presby asks the Judge if they could just concentrate their efforts on this motion by that deadline and not address the other motions filed. I believe Judge Perry agreed.
There is then a back and forth by the attorneys trying to schedule a date to argue Overland's motion. A date of September 1st is chosen. Judge Perry then asks the prosecution if they will have talked to their expert witnesses by then. "And I'll keep my calendar open and not set any trials. (snip) So, to be clear, availability of experts September 6th 7th, 9th. (No Sept. 8th; Overland is not available on that date.) Sept. 1st, hearing on motion for Kelly/Frye." Judge Perry also mentions something to the effect about the prosecution and a discovery issue, if they will have discovery available at that time. Judge Perry asks if there was anything else and I believe Overland stated that he has one other issue but it must not have been important since Judge Perry left the bench.
And that's it. It's over and Lazarus is taken away. I was too busy scribbling to see if Lazarus turned to smile at her mother before she was whisked out. At some point during the hearing, Robert Dean, the tall Dateline producer slipped in. Out in the hallway, all the reporters are standing together and I ask if anyone knew what Mr. Presby said when he was talking about "SERI," if anyone knew if he said serology, or what. No one fessed up to knowing. I knew I would then have to do what I am the most uncomfortable doing when I am around attorneys, and that's ask them a question. I leave the group of reporters and quickly head to the elevator bay where DDA's Shannon Presby and Paul Nunez are. I rustle up my courage and ask Presby if he could answer a question. He's a very personable and engaging man. I ask him about the "sera" word and what he really said and what it refers to. "Serological Research Institute. SERI. It's an independent lab. I don't know what the E is." I thank him for his time.
While we are all waiting for an elevator, Paul Nunez is talking with someone about a case where he is making the opening statement tomorrow. It's the case of Los Angeles Unified School District Police Officer, Jeff Stenroos, who back in January of this year made a false statement to police where he fabricated a story of being shot by car robbery suspects. Stenroos was arrested (and obviously indicted) a week later, charged with five felonies. When I overhear that the case is being heard at the Van Nuys Courthouse, I ask Nunez what Department the case is being heard in. He pauses for a moment and then tells me, "Department G." (The same judge who heard Robert Blake's murder trial is presiding over this case.) If I can get an appointment rescheduled tomorrow morning, I might go just to get a sneak peak on how Nunez does in his OS as well as present witnesses.
I grab an elevator to head home and check in with Mr. Sprocket about his day and whether the huge heaters got delivered to his job site. I'm out the door of the court building and it's not even 9:00 am.
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