Monday, January 30, 2012

Stephanie Lazarus Trial: Pre-Screening of Jurors Begins

UPDATED: Feb. 1st, 2012, 7:00 pm with afternoon session notes

Feb 2nd, 2012: Short edit for accuracy.

Stephanie Lazarus, June 2009

I get into Department 104 right after 8:30 am to find that the trial won't start until 10:00 am.

The first phase of jury selection gets underway today where Judge Perry will pre-screen jurors to try to find as many jurors as possible who can serve on a five to six week. trial. Today, 100 potential jurors will enter Department 104 and the goal will be to find those who would not endure a hardship to sit on a jury for that long. Not all employers pay for jury service. And of those that do, not all will pay for a long trial.

The jurors that can serve, they will be taken to another courtroom where they will complete a juror questionnaire. This exact same process with a second set of 100 jurors will be repeated on Tuesday. Judge Perry hopes to get from the 200 jurors, at least 75 to 100 that will be able to fill out a jury questionnaire. Then the jurors will be ordered back on Friday, February 3rd, 2012. Judge Perry did indicate at a prior hearing that the court will read through the jury questionnaires, and if he finds any that he feels will not meet the needs of this trial, he will excuse them before hand, calling them and letting them know they don't have to report on Friday. He would notify the prosecution and defense those juror numbers that the court excused in this process.

Mary and Arlene from the Public Information Office are here talking to Lazarus' mother and the friend I saw at the last pretrial hearing about what will happen today and what will happen for trial. Mary reassures them that they will have reserved seating during the trial, there's no problem about that. Mary reminds them that Judge Perry is a stickler for starting on time. I hear Mary ask the friend what her name is but I don't catch it. It's Judy or Jane. I have also heard Lazarus' mother called "Carol" but I do not know the correct spelling of her name. I don't have it confirmed yet, but I believe Lazarus' husband's name is Scott Young, a detective with the LAPD.

Mark Overland enters the courtroom with Courtney who was here a bit earlier. There is a tall suited, black haired gentleman sitting in the jury box and I wonder who he might be. I believe I overhear Courtney ask the sheriff's if Lazarus is in the jail area because then she says, "Oh, she's not?"

I ask Mary what Judge Perry's regular clerk's name is. It's Melody Ramarez. Judge Perry comes out and calls the suited man in the jury box back to his chambers. Mark Overland and his daughter Courtney work on their laptops at the defense table, and empty seat for Lazarus between them. Overland is on the left; Courtney on the right.

9:20 am: I go out in the hallway to finish and publish my prior entry and see a woman I first met at the first Phil Spector trial, Susan from Dateline. She recognizes me. She's not here for Lazarus, but another matter. I publish my prior story and go back inside. Lazarus' mother has her arms on the back of the bench seat and is resting her head down on her forearms. I note that Courtney, a slender woman, has on a light gray skirt and matching jacket with a pink button down blouse. Her hose are very sheer. After some deliberation in my mind, I think there is a slight gray tint to them. Her black shoes are stylish but practical low heels.

Like Judge Perry mentioned, he added quite a few chairs to the well of the court and a few in the gallery. I counted an extra 35 seats to try to seat as many jurors as possible. The court reporter asks the Overlands how they would like their copies of the prior days transcripts. It doesn't matter how they want them, the cost is the same.

A very slender blond woman in heels enters and I recognize her immediately. It's recognized journalist Pat LaLama. Mary patiently explains the procedure for today, the pool reporter, the lottery for the extra seat and that there won't be much going on today, just pre-screening of jurors. I happen to introduce myself to her and she was so kind to tell me that she reads T&T. Thank you Pat.

9:40 am: Paul Nunez enters the courtroom with Detective Jamarillo. There is a dark, curly haired woman with Jamarillo and they both sit in the first row of chairs that have been added to the well of the court. A minute later, Shannon Presby enters after him. I leave to try to write up my notes so far for today.

9:52 am I'm back in the hallway of the 9th floor of the Criminal Court Building.
Things must be starting because Public Information Office acting head Mary Wells just came out of Dept 104. I see a local TV reporter speaking to Mary in the hallway, I think ABC 7 or NBC 4. I recognize the face, but I can't put a name to him.

In the lottery, I lost the extra pool report seat. A man I've never seen before from City News got it. I see Matthew McGough in the group over with the PIO ladies, getting the low down on what will happen today.

10:10am: Melody calls jurors for 104 into the courtroom. I start writing and Matthew McGough comes by to sit on the same bench with me. I'll update as soon as I get more information.

12:00 Noon
As soon as the first batch of jurors left the courtroom, several of the reporters were allowed back in to listen to the rest of the potential jurors give their explanations to the judge as to why they couldn't serve. At this point I can only see the back of Lazarus' head. She's in black pants and a black top.

One by one, over 60 plus jurors explain their hardships. For most, it is financial. Many of those employed, their employer only pays for ten days of jury service. Others were self employed and being on a trial this long would be a financial hardship. A few mentioned they had made up their minds and could not be an impartial juror on this case having seen shows about the case on Dateline, 48 Hours or Cold Case. Other excuses ranged from pre-scheduled/paid for business trips, pre-scheduled medical procedures, language issues, having to care for an ill parent or spouse or they were in school full or part time with finals coming up. One potential juror stated they worked as a civilian employee for the LAPD for seven years. When asked directly if she had "prejudged" this case, she said she had not, but the process; she understood how hard it was to get a case to trial. Another potential juror felt she could not be impartial because she was held-up at "gun point and knife point" at the LA Music Center in 1991."

Lazarus whispers with the defense investigator. As her face is turned sideways, I see her give him a big smile and a big animated expression of surprise at something he said. It doesn't appear as if Lazarus has put on any makeup. Her skin looks very pale to me. I thought it was interesting when some would cite language as being an issue, Judge Perry would ask them how long they had lived in the US. The time frames ranged from twenty to thirty years. Then Judge Perry would ask if they spoke English on the job. One potential juror was a lawyer themselves starting in February. Judge Perry asked which law firm they worked for. Another potential juror said they had a conflict. He and Overland's co-defense counsel used to work together.

11:30 am: After every juror had been questioned, Judge Perry asked to see counsel at sidebar. Lazarus is still whispering with the large defense investigator. Judge Perry states, "I'm going to let this group all go." Hearing that, the people file out of the courtroom. The TV reporter who's name I couldn't remember introduces himself to me, and as soon as I hear it I remember. It's Patrick Healy, with local NBC. Lazarus is taken back into the jail area. I think Presby is asking if they can get more jurors in the afternoon. Judge Perry is shaking his head.

Judge Perry says something to one of the bailiffs and I hear, "31 questionnaires." Matthew asks Mary from the PIO if there are any furlough days. Mary says no, but there are two holidays, Monday the 13th and Monday the 20th, in February. There is also a holiday day at the end of March. We will be able to get a copy of the questionnaire from the Public Information Office when the judge releases it to the media.

Linda Deutsch is asked if she could remember a case where the lead defense attorney was "legally blind" and Linda indicated no. Judge Perry chats with a member of his staff. Paul Nunez and the other lead detective get up and ask to speak to Mary in the ante chamber.

Lazarus comes back into the courtroom, picks up some belongings she has left there, smiles at her friend in the gallery and is escorted back into the little jail area.

We then learn that there are an additional 50 jurors that they will receive at 1:30 pm. So, I'm here for lunch. Out in the hallway, Patrick Healy asks to get some chat time with Mark Overland. I'll be back for the afternoon session.

January 30th, 2012 1:30 pm
I get into Department 104 at 1:28 pm. Carol and her friend are sitting to my right. The investigating detectives are in the first bench row. Presby and Nunez are at the prosecution table. Judge Perry is on the bench and Overland is at the defense table. I rode up the elevator from lunch with Courtney. Since I saw her up close, the color of her blouse is more of a rose color, not pink. All the male counsel are wearing black suits today. From where I’m sitting I can see Presby has on a striped tie. I’m trying to describe what Lazarus has on today. It’s a three piece, very thin, stretch like black material. She has a black top on with a loose, flowing type cardigan/jacket. But it’s not really a jacket. I work with fabric all the time but at the moment my mind is a blank for a better word to describe it.

Jurors start to file in and fill up the jury box first. The bailiff takes a head count and they are missing 10 jurors. Judge Perry states he will wait a bit longer. Two more jurors show up. Melody tells Judge Perry there is an issue with the elevators and a few more are coming.

Lazarus and Courtney chat. From where I’m sitting, it looks like Lazarus is wearing tortoise shell glasses, but they could be black. The shape of the lenses appears to be half oval. We’re still missing five more jurors. We go on the record at 1:40 pm.

Judge Perry starts off with the usual declaration of People v. Stephanie Lazarus. Then he introduces the parties to the room, starting with himself.. He then goes from my left to right, starting with DDA Shannon Presby, DDA Paul Nunez, Mark Overland, Lazarus, Courtney and then their investigator, Randal "Randy" Later. I finally have the man’s name. I believe everyone stood including Lazarus as they were introduced.

Then Judge Perry instructs all jurors to stand and take the oath. He then moves onto the charge. It is alleged that on February 24th, 1986, Stephanie Lazarus committed the crime of murder (?) and with malice aforethought and use a firearm on that occasion. She has pled not guilty. This is not a death penalty case and jurors are not to speculate as to the punishment.

At the time of her arrest in 2009, Stephanie Lazarus had been a police officer with the LAPD for over twenty-five years. Ms. Rasmussen was killed on February 24th, 1986. She was killed in her home, unit 205 of the Balboa Town Homes at 7100 Balboa Blvd., in the city of Van Nuys.

The principle of the criminal justice system, is the defendant is presumed to be innocent. The prosecution has the burden of proof. Judge Perry talks about proof beyond a reasonable doubt. “It is the kind of proof that you have an abiding conviction of the truth at trial.”

Judge Perry then goes on to mention the considerable publicity this case has attracted. Judge Perry stresses the importance of jurors not being influenced about the guilt or innocence of the defendant from media coverage. I believe he adds, “If you have opinions about this case, you cannot be a fair juror.” He asks for a show of hands if anyone has formed an opinion so far. “I see no hands,” Perry concludes.

“As a prospective juror, you must put aside anything you’ve seen or heard; keep an open mind and wait to see the evidence in court.” Perry tells the gallery. “I’m going to give you an order. You will bring this home with you. (snip) As jurors, you must do your part not to be influenced by outside sources. (I) order you, you must not read, research, talk, listen to (TV, news broadcasts) about this case with (anyone). Do not discuss with your fellow jurors (details about) this case. Do not investigate or read or watch TV or listen to the radio or look on the Internet. You must not do research on the Internet or library or anywhere else. It’s a violation of the court order and could result in a contempt of court charge (and possibly face prosecution and/or fines).”

“Why we are so hard (on this?) is because we have no control outside the courtroom and it defeats the opportunity for a fair trial. (snip) The rules are designed that we have a fair trial for both sides. You don’t go out and investigate or talk to people about the case.”

Judge Perry then tells the gallery a true story that happened some time ago. A family of four in the San Fernando Valley were murdered in their home. It was a month-long trial. A lot of time and effort went into (presenting? prosecuting?) the case. During deliberations, a juror went to a library. There was a lot of media attention on the case at that time. Juror went to the library about the case. Don’t know what he read but he violated the court’s order. He compounded the error by bringing into the jury room (the information that he read at the library). A mistrial was declared. There are other similar stories over the years. Another case, with a judge in this building on another floor. An issue in the case was, whether or not you could get fingerprints off of a gun. A juror whipped out his i-Phone and googled it. “What’s the problem with that?” Judge Perry asks the gallery. Because you don’t know if you’re getting good information or not. There’s all kinds of problems with that.”

Judge Perry mentions a third case, in Illinois. A juror was tweeting a “blow by blow” account of the trial that caused a mistrial in that case. “Trust the system,” Judge Perry tells the potential jurors. “This case will take five to six weeks. A long one. But for those that can serve, (we would like you) to fill out a juror questionnaire. There are eight pages of questions and a list of prospective witnesses that you may know. Once you fill that out, you’re done. You come back on Friday, February 3rd, at 8:30 am. for the next stage. Filling out the questionnaire gives the attorneys (the opportunity) to find out (a bit about you) and not have to ask (you) questions in open court.”

Judge Perry informs the jurors that they are under oath on the questionnaire. Don’t hold anything back. Don’t write on the back, since these pages are copied. We’ll give you pens, and please give the pens back. We’re a government operation and not the doctor’s office. (Laughter in the gallery at Judge Perry’s comment.) “Leave now folks, if you can serve. Go to Department 103.

Several jurors get up to go next door. I want to remind everyone that the legislature (rec? record? requires?) that a trial by jury is a cherished constitutional right and jury service is a required obligation to serve when summoned. We need jurors to decide cases. (So) I say to you, (serve). Somebody died in this instance and we need jurors to sort out the evidence.

It is a repeat of the rest of what I observed during the morning session. People were giving their excuses as to why serving on this jury would be a hardship. Just like in the morning, most of the excuses were for financial hardship. The employer only pays for ten days or less of jury service or didn’t pay for jury service at all.

The “don’t know English” excuses were comical. Judge Perry would then ask, “How long have you lived in the US?” (20 years) “Have you worked in the US?” (yes, at Sears) “Did you speak English on the job?” (most of time, Spanish)
One juror’s eight year old daughter has epilepsy, with seizures every few weeks. One man had just enlisted in the National Guard and basic Several were leaving on vacations where their flights and hotels were already booked or paid for. Others were self employed, full or part-time students and others have medical issues.

I start to get sleepy, closing my eyes and blame the cafeteria food. I make a mental note to ensure I have a Mr. Sprocket cooked meal for lunch tomorrow. The last juror in the back row gives Judge Perry this speech about how she’s been wanting to serve, and Judge Perry responds, “But the message comes with a ‘but’”. I have had jurors take their vacations to serve.”

Lazarus and Mr. Later whisper. When Judge Perry retakes the bench all the jurors are excused except one. Overland gets up to speak to Detective Jamarillo.

Presby has an issue they wish to bring to the courts attention. It’s about their powerpoint they will use in their opening statement. They know Judge Perry wants to see it before trial. At this point, it’s a “work in progress.” It has to be shown to other side before trial. The sooner the people can get it to the defense, the better. Overland won’t use a powerpoint but will use exhibits. The people state they will have their’s ready by Thursday. Judge Perry asks both sides to “talk to each other” on this issue. “You don’t want to have to do this on Thursday, where you would want to be going over the juror questionnaires.”

Overland asks when they will be able to get copies of the questionnaires. The courtroom will stay open until the building closes so they can pick up the completed questionnaires. 10 am start time tomorrow. And that’s it. I make my way back to my car and almost get all the way home when my car breaks down. I’m able to get it off the freeway and within a 1/2 mile from home. From everything I tell Mr. Sprocket, over the phone he diagnoses it as a failed fuel pump. Now you know what he will be working on fixing the next few days.


Kathy said...

Rushing to get at the court by 8:30a.m. to find out it didn't start until 10:00 sounds like something I would do.

You put a delightful human face in these proceedings and make them come alive. Please know that your efforts and writing are greatly appreciated as you are our eyes and ears in the courtroom.

Charlie N said...

Do you know approximently how many seats are available for the general public? Thanks for your great reporting.

Utah Chris said...

It sounds like this is going to go past the few days budgeted by Judge Perry. Oh... the days of sitting in the jury pool... brings back memories.

Becky said...

Thank you so much for providing us with such detailed reporting of a very interesting trial that I have been following since the beginning. I read every day.