Monday, September 24, 2012

Stephanie Lazarus Case: Sherri Rasmussen Family Civil Suit, Part II

California Courts of Appeal, Second District
300 S. Spring Street, Los Angeles, CA
UPDATE 9/25/12: spelling, clarity

September 20th, 2012
Continued from initial post....

When I first arrived at the building I cleared security pretty quickly. I was startled by the guards question asking if I was wearing a belt.  If I had a belt, it had to be removed before I walked through the security scanners.  Once you enter the plaza, you see that the building is structured with an open atrium center that has large animal statues, seating areas and trees.  There are open walkways around all four sides of the upper floors.  You can see the entrance to the third floor courtroom from the open plaza.

I headed up to the cafe on the second floor to grab something to eat.  I skipped breakfast since Mr. Sprocket had to get out the door early and I worked on household projects until it was time to leave for downtown.

As soon as I entered the seating area, I saw Nels and Loretta Rasmussen sitting with their attorney, John Taylor of Taylor Ring Law Firm. Also sitting at the table was a pretty blond woman, Holly Boyer.  John Taylor mentioned to me that Holly was "very sharp" and she would be the one presenting arguments to the court.  I exchanged smiles and hugs with Nels and Loretta and then went to get a banana from the cafe.

Holly told me that she has argued before the Courts of Appeal before, so this would not be her first rodeo.  Most of the conversation from Nels and Loretta centered around their great-grandchild, Hannah, 4, who I previously saw at the sentencing hearing.  (Hannah is the daughter of Rachel, who is the daughter of Connie, Sherri's older sister.  During the trial, we saw 1985 Christmas photos of Sherri with Rachel as young baby. Sprocket.)

This appeal that has been filed by Taylor Ring is not the typical sort of appeal in front of the court, since there has been no trial with a verdict.  I believe it is Holly who states that what the LAPD filed is called a demurrer.

There were seven cases on the court's calendar, and it was not listed when the Rasmussen case would be argued.  As it got closer to 1 PM, we made our way to the third floor and the single appellate courtroom.

Security to get inside the courtroom is tight.  No electronics whatsoever are allowed in without prior approval from the court.  (For example, during the Spector oral arguments, Harriet Ryan of the Los Angeles Times received special permission to use her laptop to cover the hearing.) Once you pass through security, your electronic items are taken from you and you are given a plastic clip-on badge with a number.  Those numbers correspond to drawers in a special cabinet right outside the courtroom where they are stored by security.

You enter the courtroom from the very back of the gallery on the right.  The judge's bench is along the back wall.  In the center of the courtroom is the well area, with gallery seating on all three sides.   We are the first people to take a seat in the gallery and are able to get seats front row center.  Holly enters the well, checks in with the clerk and takes one of the several extra seats in the well, where only attorneys are allowed.

One of the officers demonstrates to all the waiting counsel how to raise and lower the podium so that the microphone is at the proper height for the individual presenting arguments.  There is no court reporter.  The arguments are tape recorded.  I do not know if it is possible to obtain an audio copy of the proceedings before a decision has been rendered, or even at all.

Four justices sit on Division Eight of the Second District.  Any three of the justices will be assigned a case for review.  A majority of two makes the decision.  The Justices are: Tricia A. Bigelow, presiding justice,  Laurence D. Rubin, Madeleine I. Flier and Elizabeth A. Grimes.  When the justices come out,  Justice Rubin is not with them.  Justice Bigelow explains that Douglas Sortino has been (temporarily) assigned by the court system to help out while Justice Rubin is away.  Justice Sortino is a former prosecutor.  He was the original prosecutor assigned to the Phil Spector trial.  DDA Alan Jackson took over the case when Sortino was appointed to the bench.  During the first Phil Spector trial, the defense called Sortino as a court witness to testify outside the presence of the jury.

Justice Bigelow advised counsel that the proceedings were tape recorded.  For those cases where Justice Rubin was one of the deciding voices, counsel had the right to have their case argued when Justice Rubin was available.  Otherwise, he would be listening to their arguments via the audio recording.  Bigelow also advised counsel that they have read all the briefs and issued for each case a "tentative opinion," so that counsel can tailor their arguments.

 The first case argued was an individual representing themselves, suing Kaiser Permamente over an emergency surgery performed on her.  The courts of appeal tentatively affirmed the lower court's verdict.

The second case argued was a divorce case where the husband was appealing the lower court ruling that he had to pay his ex-wife's legal fees.  The courts of appeal tentatively affirmed the lower court's ruling.

The third case, the courts of appeal tentatively reversed the lower court ruling.

The fourth case was the Rasmussen case, and it would be heard by Bigelow, Rubin and Grimes.  The tentative ruling was to affirm the lower court's dismissal on the basis of statute of limitations.  The court felt the latest the Rasmussens could have filed a claim against the LAPD was in 2000, since their last contact with the LAPD was in 1998.

Holly Boyer passionately argues the Rasmussen case, and against the court's tentative ruling.

Boyer argued there was no way for the Rasmussens to know the police conduct was intentional until the arrest.  They only learned in 2009 that the LAPD knew all along Lazarus was Sherri's killer.  Boyer argues the statute of limitations should not begin running until 2009.

Boyer states, "It doesn't become actionable until the motive behind it becomes known to the Rasmusssen family."

Then the Bane Act is discussed.  The Rasmussens allege they were intimidated by the LAPD to give up their pursuit of Sherri's killer, whom they suspected all along to be Stephanie Lazarus.

Not long after the Bane Act is discussed, Justice Bigelow reminds Ms. Boyer that these are only tentative rulings, and that's the purpose of oral arguments.  Justice Bigelow then expresses her condolences to the Rasmussen family, "I'm sorry for the loss that they have suffered."

There is some more argument about whether the operative date is when the plaintiff's knew. Boyer points out a section of the Bane Act regarding intimidation.  How can the statute of limitations begin when the LAPD was successful in intimidating the Rasmussens to give up their pursuit of justice for Sherri.  "These plaintiff's did not know the true facts," Boyer argues.

Boyer also mentioned to the Justices, something to the effect of, what would the family have sued the LAPD for back in 2000? They didn't know why the LAPD was intimidating them until 2009.

Then a slender, petite woman, Blithe S. Block, the attorney for the City of Los Angeles, addressed the court.  Probably because the Justice's tentative ruling was in the city's favor, her argument was brief.  Boyer had a few more minutes for rebuttal argument.  And that was it.  We left the courtroom and regrouped back in the second floor cafeteria for drinks.  Boyer was hopeful that her arguments were heard.

The California Courts of Appeal has ninety days from the end of this month to publish their ruling.  However, I believe Holly states they can request more time.

It's still amazing to me that Nels and Loretta, who just celebrated their 59th wedding anniversary, have not missed a single court hearing involving Sherri's case.  After the hearing, I walked the Rasmussens to their car, for their long drive back to Tucson.

Once I obtain copies of all the arguments, I'll put them up on T&T.

Rasmussen appeal filing on California Courts of Appeal web site.