Friday, March 9, 2012
3-7-2012 A Jealous Killer, © Thomas Broersma
thomasbroersma AT yahoo.com
NBC DATELINE EPISODE TONIGHT ON THE CASE!
In the wake of this tragic case that has had so many victims beyond Sherri Rasmussen, I'm reminded of the words that I heard family counsel John Taylor say after the verdict in the Phil Spector trial was reached: "There are no winners here."
That is even more true today with the conviction of Stephanie Lazarus. Although I have not spoken to anyone directly, it's my personal belief that Lazarus' family still believes strongly in her innocence. I suspect everyone in Lazarus' family who loves Stephanie are devastated by the jury's decision. Her mother Carol, who was at every single pretrial hearing that I attended. Her siblings, Steven and Judi, her in-laws and many close friends who stopped their lives to attend every day of the month long trial. And her husband Scott Young, an LAPD detective assigned to the Van Nuys Station who blew kisses to Lazarus after her former lover testified. I can't imagine how he can return to work. It must have been an awkward, stressful situation everyone was under at the Van Nuys Station since Lazarus was arrested in June 2009. And then there's Lazarus' and Young's five-year-old daughter (believed to be adopted from Russia), who hasn't seen her mother since the arrest.
Throughout the trial, I had several discussions with Matthew about what Lazarus' loved ones must be going through and how much this trial must be costing them, not just on a financial level (sources tell me it was a significant amount of money that Overland was paid) but a personal one as well. Independently, we both came to the same conclusion that the only way to report this story was to show compassion to everyone involved.
When a verdict is reached and a long trial is finally over, there is a void that quickly rushes in. For those of us in the gallery whose faces we saw every day and bonded over an emotionally charged experience, it's a bit like being lost as we struggle to return to a life we temporarily left behind. Artist Thomas Broersma who missed the verdict described the feeling well in an E-mail to me late last night:
I feel really sad about not being a part of this anymore, as if I lost a loved one. It's kind of tragic how wrapped up you can become with this kind of experience, the connections you make with all the people who go there and share the same setting, live through the same event, feel the intensity of the proceedings, and then it's over in a flash. Gone. But, I know I will be doing this for a long time.
I do hope Thomas continues to pursue work as a trial sketch artist. I think he has great promise. I know that Matthew and I will still be discussing the details of the case for months to come as he prepares himself to write the definitive book on the case. I know that many of T&T's readers have suggested that I write a book, but at this time in my life I don't believe my skills are honed enough to tackle such a Herculean task and do it justice. I will be putting all my support behind his efforts and give him as much assistance as I can. Besides Matthew already being a published author, you've already seen what he can do with his Atlantic article on this case and his extensive piece in Miller-McCune detailing the first ten years of LAPD's cold case squad.
And then there's the jury. After the verdict was read and before Judge Perry dismissed them, he read them the standard jury instruction about not being able to receive any monetary compensation for 90 days after the verdict. The court sealed the jurors names from the public and gave them the number of the Public Information Office if they were interested in speaking to the media. The were then quickly whisked out of the courtroom through an employee elevator.
I hope we do eventually hear from the jurors and learn what the experience has meant to them and what they were feeling throughout the trial listening to the testimony. What a heavy weight they carried sitting in judgement of Lazarus. If anyone of them happen upon T&T, I hope they will consider contacting me through the blog. I will honor any level of anonymity they wish to preserve.
Details from Yesterday
Here are some details from yesterday I didn't have time to write about.
After I published the morning entry with a short synopsis of DDA Presby's rebuttal argument I entered Department 104 at 9:10 am. There was an empty chair along the back wall near the door right beside DDA Presby. He was kind enough to answer a question I asked him off the record.
There was a pretrial hearing in progress on another case. There were seven defendants all handcuffed together in the well and several attorneys standing behind their clients. I was in an antsy state of mind wanting to know what time the jurors had started deliberating today. The other pretrial hearings were finally over at 9:45 AM and Lazarus enters the courtroom. As she was brought out she turned to look at her family and gave them a big smile. To me, she appeared even thinner than before.
At 9:45 AM, Judge Perry goes on the record outside the presence of the jury and informs the court they received a request from the jury for the testimony of two witnesses to be read back. In addition, the court also received a note at 9:05 AM from the jury about jury instructions.
I was able to write down some of what the note said.
"While going through the jury instructions, it is not clear.... (snip)...?
If we are to consider murder second degree, please provide an instruction... (snip).
Respectfully, Jury Foreperson #9."
At the prosecution table is DDA Presby and Detective Stearns.
Judge Perry tells counsel what he is going to tell the jurors. The court has prepared an instruction (for you?). It is a statement that was inadvertently omitted (from...?). The requirements for second degree are expressed in jury instruction 520. (snip) It was the court's oversight and that I raised the issue over (ti?) (snip) and we never really did define second degree.
MO: I don't... (snip) I had an objection the instruction (for second degree) in the first place but (I have no comment on the instruction? at this time?).
At 9:50 AM the jury is brought out and Judge Perry addresses them about the note requesting the read back.
JP: Let me suggest if in the future, (if you have any further testimony you need read back) if you can identify the portion of the read back (that would be helpful?).
Then Judge Perry reads the juror's question about second degree. After he reads the juror's question he smiles and comments, "Respectfully, I like that."
JP: (snip) We inadvertently, left out what second degree is. This statement (is) part of your jury instructions and I hope this will answer the question. (snip) The requirements for second degree murder are, direct or implied malice are included in instruction 520. The options for the jury are first degree, second degree and not guilty. (snip) We're going to turn it over to the court reporter.
Judge Perry leaves the bench and the court reporter takes the stand. In a very slow and steady tone she reads the testimony from the following witnesses:
Prosecution witness #4, Anastasia Volanaitas, (the neighbor who noticed Sherri and John's garage door was left open in the morning as well as received Sherri's discarded purse from two Latino looking men).
Defense witness #1 Evangelina Flores (the housekeeper who testified she heard noises coming from Unit 205 that morning that sounded like fighting.).
While the court reporter was reading the testimony, I tried to see if there were any jurors taking notes. During Volanaitas' testimony, the following jurors took a few notes: #5, #6 and #10. During Flores testimony, again juror's #5 and #6. It appeared to me that juror #3 was looking down at a notepad and writing but from where I was sitting I could not see if she had a pen in her hand during both read backs.
At 10:35 AM, the court reporter was finished and the court clerk Melody instructed them to go back to the jury room to continue their deliberations. During the entire proceeding, Lazarus sat very still at the defense table. When the jurors left, Mark Overland and his daughter Courtney sat with Lazarus and spoke to her for several minutes before she was taken back into the jail holding area.
At lunch, Matthew found out that the Van Nuys Homicide Unit would be coming down to hear the verdict and James Nuttall met us for lunch. Detective Nuttall (wearing a royal blue tie with his standard Homicide Detective's starched white shirt) kept thanking me for my trial coverage so everyone in the Van Nuys Unit was able to know on a daily basis how the trial was going. I had to keep telling Nuttall to please call me "Betsy" instead of "Mam," which he told me was his habbit.
At 12:45 PM, Matthew and I made it up to the 9th floor that was packed with mainstream media, DDA staff, LAPD officers and friends and family on both sides of the aisle. On the 9th floor, I got introduced to many people, including Jayne Goldberg's husband and prosecution witness David Neuman who both repeatedly thanked me for my trial coverage. Neuman told me, "I feel as if I already know you, since I know so much about your life and the car troubles." Sherri's friend Alicia who worked with her at Glendale Adventist was here. Sherri's sister was sitting on a hallway bench, her arm around Detective Nuttall. Matt and I experienced that emotionally wrought moment between Nels and Clara, Mrs. Presby.
I was one of the media with a green badge that got led inside the courtroom first because we wold be seated in the first row. Once I stepped inside, I asked Public Information Office employee Arlene if I could possibly sit on the end of the second row next to the family. With such a packed courtroom, I wanted to try to get out the door to publish the verdict first and try to beat the mainstream outlets. I'm grateful she honored my request. Arlene pointed me to stand next to the back wall and take that end spot after the second row had been seated.
Judge Ito was in the well of the court, sitting next to the bailiff's desk directly in front of the family. I was sitting next to Jayne Goldberg who was tightly holding Teresa Lane's hand. As tension mounted, Teresa and Jayne became emotional beside me. I put my notebook away, set my purse on the floor and asked Jayne to look after it while I clutched my laptop by my side, ready to bolt as soon as I heard the verdict.
On the other side of the aisle from me, sitting on the end was Lazarus' mother Carol. Right after Melody said murder in the first degree, I got up from my seat. I did not see him leave but friends told me Scott Young immediately left the courtroom. As I was getting up, Carol started to stand too. I think she was standing to try to get one last look at her daughter before being taken away but deputies came to her and escorted her out of the courtroom.
I then rushed out to publish.
I'm not positive but I believe that Steven Lazarus told the media something to the effect that their mother was pushed out of the building, and no one was there for his sister to get a glimpse of before Lazarus was led away.
Down in the first floor lobby, waiting for Nuttall outside the DA's JSID suite, I pull out my laptop, set it on a low empty table and gently place my knees on the terrazzo floor so I can write my 2:44 PM posting. Matthew dictates his notes to me of what he observed inside the courtroom after I rushed out. Thank you so much Matthew for being my eyes and ears. Before we left the building to head to LAPD Headquarters, we exchanged a few words with Detectives Stearns and Jaramillo and that's where I got to finally see Stearns smile and comment on it. Stearns also said to me, "You got it right." He was referring to this observation I made about him when he took the witness stand on Day 8 of the trial:
Detective Stearns appeared very serious when he was testifying. He never came close to a smile once. His demeanor kept reminding me how serious this trial is for everyone involved.
Now that I've updated y'all as much as I can this morning, I'm taking a day off. I'm going shopping at the Camarillo outlet mall with a different Stephanie in my life, a friend from Canada who is here visiting relatives. When I get home later tonight I will try to answer any remaining questions you might have and the stack of E-mails in my box today. After constant badgering by Matthew, I've moved the Paypal Donation link that's been on my blog for the last several weeks to a more prominent position on the right side. Don't forget, I've still got a few stories still to write that I think you will find interesting. Sprocket.
PS: Spelling errors: Witness Dave Neuman' first name is David, not Dave. Lazarus' defense investigator's name is Randal Later. I apologize for the errors.