Thursday, February 2, 2012
Stephanie Lazarus, 2009
Tuesday, January 31st, 2012
I get on the train at 9:13 am. I take the first seat I can find so I can work on my laptop. I grab a seat next to a bald headed black man who has a large set of head phones plugged into his LG smart phone. I compliment him on the head phones. They look like they are a very nice set. He thanks me and then begins humming quite loudly in tune to whatever he’s listening to. I try to ignore it. Thankfully, the train takes off two minutes later.
It’s been quite some time since I took the train to cover a case. On my way home from court last night my car started making these loud noises and the engine was running poorly. I was able to get off the freeway one exit before my usual one and get the car within 1/2 mile from home on surface streets before it died completely. Late last night, Mr. Sprocket and I walked to the car, put on the flashers and pushed it the rest of the way home. Mr. Sprocket is certain it’s the fuel pump. We had a spare fuel pump anticipating when this day would come, so that’s what he will be installing today, taking a break from the big job project.
As the train takes off, I start working on my notes from yesterday afternoon.
When I get into Department 104, Stephanie’s brother Steven Lazarus is sitting with a woman with short blond hair who looks to be about the same age as Steven. The woman is not wearing a wedding ring so I don’t know if this is Steven’s wife, a friend or another member of the Lazarus family. Steven Lazarus has been vocal with the press about his sister’s innocence and even uploaded a video on YouTube where he speaks in support of his sister and reasonable bail.
Pat Kelly and Arlene from the Public Information Office (PIO) are in a discussion with Steven. Judge Perry is only allowing three seats for “media” today. Those three seats also include the public and family.
Steven greets Mark Overland as he enters the courtroom. DDA’s Presby and Nunez enter right after Overland. Lazarus comes out wearing the same black outfit but possibly with a different knit top. When I went through the 9th floor security, the Overland’s were in front of me and Courtney was giving a shirt to the Sheriff’s to be given to Lazarus in the jail area. As Lazarus sits down, she turns and smiles at her brother and the woman. Lazarus’ mother stands right next to the little wall that separates the gallery from the well of the court. I sit in the seat closest to the door with Steven and his friend to my left. Courtney Overland and Lazarus’ mother Carol, exit the courtroom to chat. Lazarus turns around again to smile and gesture at her brother. She lifts her leg to show him her footwear. Steven gives her a big smile back. Lazarus also has big smiles for the deputy in the well who is now speaking to her.
Looking over at the prosecution table, I see DDA Paul Nunez is chewing gum. He blows a big bubble. (Judge Perry is not on the bench.) This image brings me immediately back to the first Spector trial, when I was so nervous I was unconsciously chewing my tongue. During testimony, a female deputy came over and gestured for me to spit my gum out. I can laugh about it now but in that moment I was mortified.
Judge Perry’s clerk Melody has on a turquoise cardigan over her black dress with a very ornate, black quartz crystal necklace. I overhear Steven say to Mark Overland, “Don’t miss, Mark. Don’t miss!”
Judge Perry takes the bench. The jurors are on their way. Judge Perry greets counsel. DDA Pesby, in conversation with the Judge makes the comment about yesterday’s pre-screening, “I was struck (by the differences). ‘I was out of work’ and next “I’m going on a cruise.” It just shows the differences in our society. The have and the havenots.”
Judge Perry instructs Melody to send all the jurors in. As the jurors come in, Judge Perry says to them, “Just sit anywhere folks.” I over hear Carol ask Steven, “Is Scott here?” Steven replies, “I haven’t seen him.”
Judge Perry then starts the same procedure I observed in the afternoon session yesterday. He introduces the parties at the prosecution and defense table to the jurors.
Journalist Matthew McGough shows up and finds a spare seat. Lazarus’ handsome husband, Scott Young enters the courtroom. He’s dressed in a dark suit. Matt gives up his seat for Scott Young.
Judge Perry is outlining the charge to the jurors and explaining that the charge “is not evidence.” It’s the same speech as yesterday, explaining to the group the foundational principals of the presumption of innocence and what proof beyond a reasonable doubt is. “(It) is the kind of poof that makes the proof so sure they have an abiding conviction of the truth at trial.” A juror comes in late and he is asked to stand to take the oath. Judge Perry starts all over again so this last juror can be brought up to speed. Judge Perry tells the group that the case has attracted a considerable amount of publicity. He tells them not to speculate about the punishment and then continues with, “Anyone that believes they have formed an opinion (already that) the defendant is guilty or not based on what you have heard in the media...”
A juror in the jury box interrupts Judge Perry and asks to be reassigned to a civil case. Immediately after that, another woman, older with blond hair speaks up and says, “I knew Sherri Rasmussen. I worked with her.” Judge Perry immediately tells her, “I don’t think you should be on this case.” She gets up from her seat and immediately leaves the courtroom. As she passes me, I can see that she is distraught, shaken. There is a look of anguish on her face and my heart goes out to this woman. As she enters the ante chamber, she is so shaken she mistakenly opens the door to the storage room instead of the double doors that exit out to the hallway. I resist the urge to go out and speak to her. I don't want to lose my seat.
Judge Perry is now going over the direct order to the jurors, not to read, talk about, research about the case until a verdict has been reached. He informs them of the risks if they do and then mentions the two cases of juror misconduct he spoke about yesterday. This time, Judge Perry also mentions the actress Cher and the movie she made (the film is Suspect, with Dennis Quaid). “She got out there and did all sorts of things. That’s the movies!”
Judge Perry mentions the length the trial is expected to go but adds, “I don’t think it will go that long but it’s a general estimate. We know most if not all don’t want to be here. We know that this is an imposition of your daily lives. (snip) I’ve had people tell me afterwards (that it was a good experience). I’ve even ended up marrying a couple, but that’s another (story).” Judge Perry then cites California Civil Code 191, describing how trial by jury is a “cherished constitutional right.” For those that can serve and are willing to serve, he tells them about the jury questionnaire they are asked to fill out. I count thirty-one people getting up to fill out the questionnaire.
Judge Perry moves onto the hardship excuses as to why they can’t serve. I’ll just mention a few that were memorable. One individual tells the court, “I have hand guns. I don’t know if that’s....” There’s a bit of laughter from the gallery and a pause from Judge Perry, who then replies, “It’s okay to own guns...”
The next juror works in a library and says his job duties are scanning in articles about cases like this. Judge Perry’s response is priceless. “You work for the library. You’re a city employee. You’re gold. You get paid for five weeks. (Laughter in the courtroom.) We have judges who pray for (these types of jurors). (More laughter.) Judge Perry tells this juror to fill out the questionnaire.
One woman came to the US from Egypt. She doesn’t believe she can convict unless Lazarus “admits” to being guilty. Judge Perry asks her how long she’s lived in the US. Twenty-six years. She’s never been on a jury.
Another potential juror tells the court that her family member was convicted of second degree murder. It started off as a self defense case. She feels the jury made a mistake. She doesn’t believe the system worked. With a confused expression on his face, Judge Perry asks her, “Your relative was wrongly convicted so you might make it (this case) worse for the defendant?” “Yes,” she replies.
Counsel goes up for a sidebar with Judge Perry. When they are through with the sidebar, Judge Perry is back on the bench. They have a total of 79 potential jurors who have filled out the questionnaire. He tells the parties they cannot get more jurors today. Judge Perry thinks they are good to go. Presby feels they need another ten or fifteen. He tells the court that some of the jurors they have so far (who have filled out the questionnaire from yesterday) possibly have language issues. There are complete pages that were not filled out. Either Judge Perry or Presby muses, if the court got another forty, they could possibly get another ten out of that group.
Mark Overland requests to know the names of the jurors. Judge Perry tells Overland that he will have their race and gender on the questionnaire. He doesn’t feel he should release to counsel the jurors names. “I won’t give (them?) the defense the jurors names.” Overland counters, “What’s the code?” Judge Perry asks, “What is your need?” Overland states, “There is no legal basis to withhold their names.” I don’t have Judge Perry’s response completely. “When (possible?) ...not given names of jurors. (It’s an) unreasonable intrusion. You’re going to know their age, sex, race. (snip) I don’t know (the) value to know (the reason). (I think? believe? it’s) an invitation to possible mischief.” Judge Perry then tells Overland he will do some research on this issue.
We are now waiting to see if we will have more jurors at 1:30 pm. Mark Overland asks if they could get together with (the court? prosecution?) to go over some jurors questionnaires and stipulate to some jurors and call them so they don’t come on Friday.
Several skipped filling out whole pages. Some had travel issues so (we?) might excuse those before voir dire. Judge Perry states he has no problem if counsel have jurors they both stipulate to. That’s fine.
From my notes, I believe Judge Perry leaves the bench. Presby gets up to stretch, extending out his arms.
Mark Overland comes out of the well to greet Scott Young and shakes his hand. He sits beside him and puts his arm around Young’s shoulder. Overland then goes over Carol to speak to her. Carol is coughing and Steven asks, “Are you okay Mom?” Steven gets up from his seat to gesture to Overland and Young know that I’m writing everything down. After that Overland gets up from sitting next to Young. Lazarus is whispering with Courtney in the well.
Judge Perry tells the gallery that they can get more jurors at 2:30 pm. The courtroom will be back open at 1:30 pm. I take off to find a place in the cafeteria to eat my lunch and try to start on my notes.
When I get to the cafeteria, I see the potential juror who stated they were a colleague of Sherri Rasmussen's. I debate on whether or not to ask her to sit at her table. I choose another table that becomes free off to the side, set down my tray and do something that is totally out of character with my overly shy personality. I get up and go over to her table. I squat down next to the juror’s table so I'm not looking down at her and ask if she was the juror that left the courtroom. I ask her if she would be willing to speak to me. I’m a blogger, covering the trial. She first says, “It was a long time ago.” I tell her that I know it was a long time ago. I then say, “Why don’t you eat your lunch and think about it. If you decide to talk to me, even if I don’t write anything down, I’ll be over at a table right around the corner.” I go back to my table and get caught up with making several needed phone calls. When I call Mr. Sprocket, he confirms that the problem with the car is the fuel pump like he suspected. However, he won’t be able to get all the needed gaskets until Thursday morning. Today he will be working on trying to drain the gas tank that will need to be removed to install the new fuel pump.
As I’m eating my turkey and broccoli Mr. Sprocket fixed for me this morning and trying to type at the same time, the juror I spoke to earlier came over to speak to me.
I asked the juror her name and she said, “Mary.” I then explain a bit about myself. That I am a blogger covering the trial. She asked, “Are you allowed to do that?” I tell her that I’ve been covering the Los Angeles Criminal Court since 2007 and that last year, the court recognized my trial reporting and now consider me a member of the media. I tell her a little bit about my reporting style, of trying to bring my readers into the courtroom with me, so they get to see and hear what I experience. I then ask her if I could take notes and Mary agrees.
I tell Mary that when she passed me in the courtroom, I thought I saw a look of anguish on her face. Mary tells me that last night, she and her husband saw on the news that there would be 100 jurors called today for this case. She told her husband, “Oh my, I hope I don’t get called for that.” She thought that even if she was, the court wouldn’t keep her on the jury. “When they said “Stephanie Lazarus” (in court) I knew.”
Mary worked with Sherri Rae Rasmussen when she worked at UCLA. Sherri was, “Very intelligent, very sweet.” Sherri then left to go work at Glendale Adventist. Mary started at UCLA in the 1980’s. “Sherri and I were both unit directors. Back then they called us head nurses.” When I mention to Mary that I’ve read Sherri was quite accomplished at a young age, she replied, “Yes, she was.” Mary said she worked with Sherri one or two years. “I started in ’81. I can’t remember when she left. My good friend was a nurse who worked in her unit at UCLA. The staff were devastated when (she was killed).” Mary indicated that many of her co-workers were concerned that Sherri didn’t suffer. Mary said that they (upper management?) told the staff at the time that it was a robbery.
Mary said the unit that Sherri was in charge of was the cardiac unit. Her relationship with her was all at work, but also added that “...nurses are a pretty tight group. Her staff really adored her and respected her tremendously.”
When I exit the cafeteria, I see DDA Alan Jackson, in a stark white shirt, jacket off, intently talking on his cell phone in the building lobby. He’s pacing as he talks. I put myself in his line of sight and he gives me a big smile, waves and continues with his conversation.
After lunch, I head back up to the 9th floor and enter Department 104. It’s 1:40 pm. I notice DDA Nunez’ well worn leather satchel briefcase at the prosecution table. Scott Young is in the gallery. Mark and Courtney Overland are working on their laptops. I can see from the back row that the font on Mark’s computer screen is very large. Even though he walks with a cane, he still has vision capability. I can’t read what’s on his screen; it’s too far away. The other LAPD detective (who conducted the interview with Lazarus in the jail) is at the prosecution table. Lazarus is intently writing at the defense table. Matthew McGough, who has decided to come back for the afternoon session, points out to me that these two people (the detective and Lazarus) are sitting almost at the same table again. (The last time they were together was the interrogation of Lazarus in the jail at Parker Center.) Each one at different ends of the long tables. The court tells the parties that they are waiting another 10 minutes for the jurors. From where I’m sitting, it appears Lazarus is focused on what she is writing.
I also notice in the gallery, a gray-haired, mustached gentleman with a cane. He’s carrying a Think Pad or electronic device in a leather bound case and a small black book he picks up and refers to occasionally. I don't know if he's with the media or just a spectator. Judge Perry tells the room that the jury service is having computer issues.
Judge Perry and counsel talk about how voir dire will be conducted. They will break the jurors into two groups of 40 each. Judge Perry still thinks they can get it done in a single day and get through challenges for cause. He plans for each side to go for an hour at a time then challenges. Judge Perry then tells counsel, “We’ll tell them that they (counsel will) have a list of names and not to read anything into the fact that they’re using (juror) numbers.
Judge Perry then leaves the bench while they wait to hear from the jury service. I’ve never heard of that before, that the court has given the names of the jurors to all counsel.
(Later in the afternoon, I nod to Paul Nunez that I’d like to ask him a question and he steps out into the ante chamber. I ask him if he could clarify that Judge Perry ruled that counsel will get the jurors names. He replies, “I can’t say.” Then next day I checked with a few of my sources in the MSM who practiced law at one time. One source indicated that they always got the names of the jurors in the cases they tried. I’ve not seen it because in the short time I’ve covered the crimnal court, I’ve only covered high-profile cases where keeping jurors names from counsel is not the norm.)
Court clerk Melody asks each side how many exhibits they plan to introduce so she can order evidence tags. The prosecution thinks they will have about 300 pieces; the defense about 200. She also reminds herself out loud, “Oh, I better clean out my evidence locker.” There is a question about copies of exhibits for the press. They decide to talk to the judge to figure it all out. Mark Overland states, ‘If they (the press) want copies they can pay for them.” I miss Presby’s response. Melody, taking the stance of a boxer with her fists up jokingly says, “I’ll have it out with Mary Hearn (PIO Department Head). Melody and the bailiff talk about how many notebooks they will need to order for the jurors.
Lazarus is brought back into the courtroom from the jail area. There is a bit of back and forth on the bench over the phone with the jury service. Now the jury service is telling him that they will not get any jurors. Judge Perry states, “We’re not getting jurors. I'm not inclined to pre-screen more jurors. We are living in a time of financial constraint. The jury assembly room has been told to cut back significantly. I had plan to meet with the chief (of the department?) to try to set up some better policies (so that) big cases can be better supported. (snip) If we don’t get our jurors...well... My sense of the matter is we have enough to select a full and impartial jury. Counsel, any questions?”
Both sides say no and Judge Perry replies, “See you Friday morning.” I exit the courtroom and wait outside for a bit but no one comes out. I decide to go back inside where I learn things have totally turned around and the jury service is sending over more jurors, some from the Stanley Mosk Courthouse. It’s 3:15 pm and they think they will start again at 3:30 pm.
Overland comes over to speak to Carol for a moment then goes back to the well. Lazarus, looking up from her seat, is smiling at Mark and Cortney Overland as they speak to her. I see Lazarus stretch out her neck, putting her hands on her chin and the back of her neck to give it a pull. She does this, using her hands to help stretch her head from one side then the other.
At 3:18 pm, Judge Perry comes back out, looks at the gallery and then goes back into the back room area where his chambers are. Soon, forty-three more jurors start to slowly file in. At 3:35 pm I count forty people in the courtroom. We wait for the last few stragglers. When they are all assembled, Judge Perry introduces the parties at the counsel table very quickly, telling them not to get up. I note that each time I saw Lazarus introduced to the jury, she kept her gaze forward and did not turn and look towards the jury.
Judge Perry first jokes with the group about how they probably thought they were going to get through the day without getting on a case. He then goes through his speech about the case to the potential jurors quite fast. He skips telling them about the juror miscounduct cases. There’s only about 20 minutes left in the court day. He’s trying to get this group of jurors cleared and not have to bring them back tomorrow. From this group, there are five more jurors that get up to fill out the questionnaire. Judge Perry speeds through the remaining jurors, asking about their hardship questions. They don’t get any more jurors for the questionnaire. The room is excused with about eight minutes to spare. After Judge Perry left the bench, even his court clerk Melody commented about the speed Judge Perry went through pre-screening jurors.
I leave the courtroom and make my way home via train then bus. I had to walk over a mile of my route home since Mr. Sprocket, still busy working on the car didn’t want to break off and come pick me up. I'm really hoping my car is ready by Friday.
On a side note, here is an article in the Atlantic on how journalist Matthew McGough first met Stephanie Lazarus. Sprocket.