Tuesday, April 3, 2012

Going to Court: Department 30: "Arraignment Court"

UPDATE 4-4-2012: Edited for spelling, accuracy, additional details.

Thursday, March 29th, 2012

Mr. Sprocket dropped me off at the Universal City Station just in time to make the 7:32 AM train. I’m lucky; right before the train reaches Hollywood, a seat becomes available and I can open my laptop to write.

I decided to come to court because my friend Matthew McGough is interested in a case that has a hearing in Dept. 30 today, AKA “arraignment court”. This is an opportunity to hang out with Matthew for the morning and find out what he’s been working on the past couple of weeks. The case involves the recent arrest of a German national, Gerhard Albert Becker, 48, for the involuntary manslaughter death of a 38-year veteran of the Los Angeles Fire Department, Glenn Allen.

It’s alleged that Becker, who was the architect and general contractor on his own luxury designer home in the Hollywood Hills, included several fireplaces in the third floor that were rated for an outdoor installation. The Los Angeles Times has an excellent article on the arrest and allegations. If convicted, Becker faces four years in state prison. It’s my understanding that this is a case that Detective Greg Stearns (Robbery/Homicide) investigated. Stearns was one of the detectives that interviewed Stephanie Lazarus.

8:12 AM: I’m here on the 5th floor, waiting outside Dept. 30. Most of the people in the hallway are either here for jury service (there is a jury service room on the 5th floor) or are waiting for one of the departments on this floor to open. There is one group of well dressed suits waiting on a bench across the hall from me. Sitting with them is a woman in her late 20’s or early 30’s in a dull turquoise blue pea coat, drop earrings and her naturally curly hair pulled up in a bun. Another suit walks up and joins them.

Matthew warned me he might be late so I don’t expect him until after Dept. 30’s doors open up.

8:24 AM: Several people come up and try the door but it’s still locked. There is a cameraman here. It’s a youngish-looking be-speckled man with his hair pulled back in a ponytail. He has the standard police media ID on a chain around his neck. There’s also an individual with a video camera there. Then a second still photographer shows up, a woman. They are all chatting together with an attractive, copper-haired young woman who must be a beat reporter. I take in her outfit as I admire her very pale skin. She’s wearing a short, very light brown wool type coat with bell sleeves, a black skirt and black pointed patent-leather heels.

The hallway starts to jam with people.

A little before 8:30 AM, a female deputy opens the door and asks who’s here from the media. I get up from my bench seat across the hall and join the mainstream press by the door.

It’s not until I finally get inside Dept. 30 that I remember I was here before, over a year ago to see convicted serial killer John Floyd Thomas. (There was no trial. He pled out.) It’s my understanding that this is the same courtroom where Stephanie Lazarus was first photographed in ‘the cage.’ (When Matthew finally arrived, he called it the ‘fish tank.’)

So let me describe arraignment court. It’s a large, deep room. The gallery is made up of three sections separated by two long entry aisles that lead back towards the entry door. The well of the court is separated from the gallery by low walls with wood swinging doors.

The judge’s bench is in the same location with every other courtroom I’ve seen in this building, back center, where they have an excellent command of the room. Coincidentally, the current judge in Dept. 30 is Shelly Torrealba, formerly a DDA in the JSID group. Judge Torrealba was co-counsel with DDA Shannon Presby, at Stephanie Lazarus’ preliminary hearing. (I first saw Judge Torrealba at the DA debate last November, but I couldn’t think of an ice-breaker reason to go up to her and introduce myself beyond telling her I read the transcripts of the Lazarus’ prelim.) Just to the right of the bench is a witness box.

On the left side in the well area, right next to the first bench row is a desk where a deputy sits. People out on bail that are scheduled to appear (and/or who don’t have counsel yet) are instructed to sign in with the bailiff. The first two rows on this side of the gallery next to the bailiff are roped off and reserved for police, counsel and media. In the center of the gallery, the first three rows are also roped off for the same. This is where I took a seat in the second row, sitting next to the pretty copper-haired reporter. I put my purse to the side of me to try to save room for Matthew when he finally showed up.

In the far left area of the well is a higher counter area, behind where the clerk and other court staff sit. This is where all counsel go to check in with the court.

On the far right side is “the cage”. It’s about five or six feet deep and over twenty feet long. It’s a combination of wooden half wall, glass, and horizontal steel bars. The top of the cage is covered with steel mesh. When a defendant is brought out, their counsel stands next to them just outside of the cage. Depending on how many defendants are in the cage at one time will depend on how many sheriff’s are in there with them.

The most eye-catching part of the entire courtroom was the well area and the interesting characters seated at a mass of desks/tables arranged into a “G” pattern. I counted eleven different people sitting on either side of the configuration. Some had computers, some did not. Some had phones and some had horizontal letter tray organizers. The individual directly in front of the judge was the court reporter. Everyone else I had difficulty determining what their role was. Most of the people appeared to be busy, but what they were busy doing I couldn’t fathom. In addition, there were two extra desks set apart facing each other, right up against the dividing wall near the center right of the well. There were two women sitting at the desks. They didn’t have phones or computers and most of the time I was there, they read different things. After a time, one woman had a newspaper in her lap that she was discretely reading. (It’s not until much later in the morning that Matt and I realize these two women must be language interpreters, that may be called into service at a moment’s notice.)

It’s 8:45 AM and Matthew hasn’t arrived yet. People who are here for an appearance, form a line in the left aisle to check in with the bailiff.

Bailiff: Do you have an attorney?

Defendant: No.

Bailiff: Fill this out and bring it back.

On the right side of the gallery in line with “the cage” in the well, were a series of desks facing into the gallery. There was a big sign on one desk that said:


8:50 AM and Matthew’s still not here. I know he had a personal errand he had to run before arriving and I’m hoping he makes it in time for Becker. He knows what Becker’s counsel look like as well as who the prosecutors are.

At 8:50 AM Judge Torrealba takes the bench and it’s now that I notice for the first time a very large HD type video screen mounted on the wall over the bailiff’s desk on the left. There is a defendant in custody somewhere, appearing for court on video conference. The defendant waives his right to appear in court. He then gives up his right to fight extradition to Arizona. Then Judge Torrealba speeds through getting the defendant’s waiver of rights on the record in regards to having preliminary hearings within the required 45 days of arrest. The court clock will be set at 0/45 on May 11th and he’s ordered back to court on that date.

Another defendant who is out on bond is called. It’s the well-dressed defendant I saw in the hallway sitting with the woman in the pea coat. The hearing is quickly over and they leave. A defendant in jail blues is waiting in the cage. He’s sitting on some kind of seat his arms handcuffed behind him. Judge Torrealba steps off the bench for a moment.

It’s hard to describe, but everywhere in this courtroom there is a buzz of activity. And every so often the bailiff has to tell the people waiting in the gallery to be quiet, but mostly the attorneys ignore the command. Various counsel chat in groups in the gallery and attorneys come and go in the well.

9:05 AM Judge Torrealba takes the bench again. I see several faces that look familiar but I can’t place where I’ve seen them before. Most look either like court staff or DDA’s. I could have seen them dropping in on a case I’ve covered or in the cafeteria. I don’t know. Two male attorneys were standing in the bench row directly in front of the reporters to my left and chatted for some time while the judge was on the bench.

9:15 AM Terri Keith from City News arrives and takes a seat in the first bench row on the left. I see her introduce herself to the court reporter who has come over to her while Judge Torrealba is off the bench.

In this courtroom, the DDA could stand at the podium on the left side of the well, but defense counsel and their client can also stand at this podium if they are not in custody. Another defendant is called and a familiar looking face in the well, a woman states, “(Shelly? Knight?) for the people.” She’s a young-looking, tiny woman with thin brown hair just past her shoulders that I believe I saw in Dept. 100.

9:30 AM Matthew finally arrives and we chat about the interesting variety of people working at the desks in the well area. There’s one older gentleman who has a large, walrus worthy gray and white mustache. He’s possibly with the public defender’s office. Another barrel-chested man wearing suspenders and disheveled hair apparently was the DDA assigned to this court to handle some cases. Matthew thinks this would be a very interesting courtroom for artist Thomas Broersma to sketch and I agree.

Matthew also points out the prosecutors and defense attorneys on the Becker case. The main defense attorney is Chad Lewin.

The DDA’s are Sean M. Carney (Arson Unit) and Frances Young (Target Crimes Division). Young is an interesting looking Asian woman. She has jet black hair, but it’s not in a traditional style that you would normally see. It falls past her shoulders and styled in a way that has height and soft curves. Think Julia Roberts' hairstyle in Pretty Woman. She’s wearing a black suit, horizontal cut black blouse and a short strand of large white pearls. Her makeup is perfect and she has a nice glowing smile. She also has on large, odd-shaped black rimmed glasses. The overall look is sharp, very elegant.

It’s not in my notes but I’m remembering that Lewin stepped out and their hearing is set aside until he comes back inside the courtroom. I believe Becker was brought out in the cage but then taken back; I’m not positive about that. The defense co-counsel who came in with Lewin is still here and I’m over hearing some discussion not on the record that Becker may make his 2 million bail today. Something is said about home electronic monitoring.

I note a large sign over the cage in English and Spanish that says

COMMUNICATING WITH CUSTODIES (is prohibited?) and then the specific law code regarding that.

Matthew points my attention away from “the cage” over to the left side of the room and says, “There’s your guy.” A surprise. It’s DDA Alan Jackson with a rolling card loaded with two large paper case box cartons. He goes directly into the well area, finds a spot for his cart and steps up to the clerk’s desk. He leaves his cart in the well and steps back outside Dept. 30. My guess is that he’s here for Eric Harmon’s case that I saw on the calendar for today. Two defendants, David Cruz Ponce and Max Eliseo Rafael are accused of five murders in a homeless encampment on November 2nd, 2008. They were recently arrested in January.

When Jackson reenters, he sits over on the left side of the courtroom in the second bench row. I then see him get up and greet an older balding man. They both go over to the two boxes in the well. It appears the other attorney is signing for the documents.

Jackson’s hearing is now before Judge Torrealba. (One of) the defense attorney’s is objecting to the media in the room photographing (one or both) of the defendants. I believe he raises issues of identity. The people are turning over to the two defense attorneys 1,234 pages of discovery. Now I understand why Jackson had two big boxes. Each attorney received his own copy of the discovery. There is a bit of back and forth as to when the people and both defense counsel can return to Dept. 30. First they pick May 2nd, but eventually decide on May 4th, the day of Lazarus’ sentencing.

Gerard Becker’s hearing is next. The defendant is brought out. The court is issuing an order for his release.

It’s 11:15 AM. I’ve been here over 3 hours. There is a request from the media for a photo and Judge Torrealba grants it. The be-speckled pony-tailed photographer enters the well and from across the room from the cage, starts to snap Becker’s photo.

Judge Torrealba is saying something about the defendant posting bail; that the collateral has been received. She will sign the order and he will be released today. There will be a GPS monitoring device based on the defendant’s prior leaving of the country. It’s warranted to ensure his return for the remaining proceedings.

Apparently, there is a problem with the company (Sentinel?) who places the GPS tracking device placed on the body late in the day at the jail. (That’s not completely clear.) Becker is told he cannot leave the county without prior permission from the court. More discovery is needed and Becker is ordered back to Dept. 30 on April 25th, and the calendar is set at 0/45 as of that date. Detective Gregory Stearns will be the contact info from Sentinel. Judge Torrealba will give the defendant until noon tomorrow to present himself to the Sentinel offices to get the device attached. Tomorrow, court is closed due to the holiday.

Someone states the scrambler bracelet is easy to do in custody; GPS not as easy to do. Something is worked out and Judge Torrealba states that Sentinel will install the device when Becker is transferred (from his previous location?) to Men’s Central jail. It will happen after 5:00 PM.

And that was it for Dept. 30. I was surprised at how quickly Judge Torrealba went through the cases on her calendar for the day.

Matthew and I peeked into Dept. 40. It was a room almost the mirror image of Dept. 30. The only difference was, there were far fewer people in the well area of the court and I didn’t see any desks along the side wall belonging to the LAPD. We then took a peek into Dept. 50. This room was similar in layout to Dept. 30, but there wasn’t a “cage” area. Instead, there was a row of benches facing sideways inside the well of the court.

Afterwards, we dropped in on Dept. 104 so Matthew could check on getting the rest of the Lazarus transcripts he’d ordered. Judge Perry was chatting off the record with a tall, handsome black DDA (he reminded me of Blair Underwood) I’d seen in his courtroom before. Right before the court reporter came over to speak to Matthew, Judge Perry saw us in the gallery and commented, “Just couldn’t stay away?” I smiled.

After dropping in on Judge Perry, we stopped into Dept. 106, Judge Fidler’s courtroom to inquire about a cold case Matthew is following but Wendy, Judge Fidler’s clerk indicated the case was not scheduled to be on the calendar for the next 90 days. After Dept. 106 we dropped in on Dept. 105, Judge Bower’s courtroom. I don’t believe I’d ever been inside this courtroom before. We knew that DDA’s Eric Harmon and Beth Silverman were trying Latece Megale Brown for the rape and murder of two women. (I could not find a news article on the case.) When we entered at about 11:45 AM, Silverman was presenting her closing argument. In just those few moments, I was hearing some pretty horrific facts. Wouldn’t you know, I started to get a coughing fit and had to leave the courtroom. Afterwards, Matthew treated me to sushi in Little Tokyo, where we talked about a short writing project he’s working on. When it’s finished, I’ll let T&T readers know where you can find it on the web.

In addition to the Beck and Ponce/Rafael cases, I’ve become aware of two other cases that might be interesting but they are still a long way off.

David Viens, 47: Case BA38162701

Viens is charged with felony murder in the disappearance of his wife, Dawn. Viens was arrested in March 2011, for Dawn’s October 2009, death.

Freddy Leyva, 22: Case BA39513301

Leyva, a former jobs corps honors student is charged with the stabbing death of his school counselor, Dwayne Alexander, 48.

I’ll be keeping my eye on these cases as they develop. The next day, I check in on the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s web site to see when Becker was released from custody. His location had changed on March 30th, at 9:10 AM to the “Inmate Reception Center”. At 11:22 AM, the web site showed he was no longer in custody and out on bond.

And last, a little note on myself. I am taking a little trip to places far and away next week but I will be back in time for Kelly Soo Park’s next pretrial hearing on April 16th, 2012.

UPDATE 4-4-2012:
There was one moment in court that I did not take notes on, that I just remembered during my edit. There was one defendant in custody, who was complaining about something, I believe his court-appointed attorney, but I'm not positive about that. He kept interrupting Judge Torrealba. She ended up yelling at him from the bench, ordering him to stop speaking several times, telling him he did not have the right to raise that complaint at this hearing. If I'm remembering correctly, Judge Torrealba told the defendant that he would be able raise these issues in a later time. I'm guessing that could be once his case is assigned to a trial court.


TigressPen said...

Another great article! I'm glad you've become interested in the David Viens case. To say the least, it's an interesting one. Dawn disappeared and David allegedly didn't report it. Since then LE has allegedly discovered microscopic blood spatterings on the bedroom walls of the their home. The blood spatters were dicovered after David and his new girlfriend moved out the home where David and Dawn had also lived. When LE went to talk to him, he jumped off an 80 foot cliff. Presumedly to commit suicide but could it have been nothing more than an attempt to escape? At sentencing a few days ago, he pled not guilty. (He was wheeled into court on a gurney)

C C Adams said...

Once a criminal defendant starts to express distrust of his/her attorney, the Judge must stop the discussion in open court.

At a later date there will be a "Marston Hearing" in California. Similar hearings are called differently in other states.

All Marston hearings are held with just the court staff, Judge, defendant and current attorney. Although the term for such a private hearing is "in camera" often associated with a meeting in the judge's chambers, in California criminal practice because of security needs for more than one armed bailiff, spectators and prosecutors are sent out of the courtroom, then the door is locked from the inside.

All of this would explain why Judge Torrealba reacted as she did while you were in court. The record and transcript of Marston hearings is always under seal.

Sprocket said...

Thank you Dr. Adams!

Now that you mention it, I do recall Judge Torrealba mentioning something that sounded like "Martin" hearing but I'm sure you are correct with the "Marston" hearing.

She was pretty angry when she was yelling at him to stop speaking because he wouldn't shut up.

kevans39 said...

Echoing TigressPen, I have to say, that I'm so glad you've taken an interest in the Viens case. I became interested by pure happenstance - not Nancy Grace - but it seems that Dawn Vien's death has fallen off of the public radar. I'm so glad someone is following this - I'm sure Vien's is trying hard to work a good plea deal by giving up the body.... Little wonder his mother remodeled and re-opened the restaurant so quickly....

I am sure he is trying to plea out 2nd degree... But it's only my guess. The case just grabbed me and I wonder about justice for Dawn while this guy's girlfriend works her old job and drives Dawn's husband's car.