Sherri Rae Rasmussen, murdered by Stephanie Lazarus
UPDATED 11/14: Clarity
There was a hearing today in the Rasmussen family civil suit against Stephanie Lazarus for the murder of their daughter, Sherri. Nels and Loretta Rasmussen are suing Lazarus for wrongful death. Although the Rasmussen's lost their suit against the Los Angeles Police Department, their case against Lazarus continues to go forward.
I arrived at the Stanley Mosk Courthouse at about 8:15 AM. The line to get in the building was wrapped half way around the side street. I didn't know if I would make it inside in time. My friend Matthew McGough arrived a few minutes later.
Up on the fifth floor, the hallway was a sea of dark suited men and women. There were very few casually dressed people in the hallway. John Taylor was sitting on a hallway bench, waiting for Dept. 48 to open. He was wearing a medium grayish-beige suit with a subdued pattern in the threads.
When I arrived John Taylor indicated that it would just be a status conference and a request to the judge to trail Lazarus' criminal appeal. For her criminal appeal, Lazarus is represented by attorney Donald Tickle of Volcano, California. Once her appeal has been heard and ruled on then Taylor would present a motion for summary judgement against Lazarus in the civil case.
This is the same strategy Taylor used for the Clarkson family lawsuit against Phil Spector, and to me it makes the most sense. Taylor also indicated that Mark Overland is Lazarus' attorney of record. Apparently, Overland's criminal defense of Lazarus also included representation for a single appeal. Overland's representation is not an 'appeal' per se, but a defense. I'm not surprised he would defend Lazarus in the civil case and not the criminal appeal. Appeals are usually handled by counsel who specialize in those cases. Overland did not make the hearing today.
When Dept. 48 opened, we entered and sat in the front row. Most of these courtrooms in the Stanley Mosk Courthouse are quite small. They are not like the courtrooms that are depicted on most crime dramas, with lots of space and a stately bench for the judge. They are little square boxes. In the gallery, there were six seats across on each side of the single center aisle, and four rows, making a total of 48 individual seats.
Due to the fiscal crisis in California, there have been severe budget cuts to the LA County Superior Court. The court no longer provides a court reporter in civil cases. If a plaintiff wants to have a record of a court proceeding, they must pay for a court reporter themselves. It's my understanding that a court reporter can cost $750.00 a day, or $350.00 for half a day. And, there isn't a deputy in the courtroom either. They were replaced by a civilian assistant of some sort, who ends up helping the clerk with their work. The court clerk does keep minutes of the judge's rulings for the case file, but that's it. Civil cases that request a jury trial (as opposed to a bench trial), must pay the court a deposit ($150.00) and pay jury fees. The clerk prepares a bill to the plaintiff at the end of the week.
When Judge Elizabeth Allen White takes to the bench, my first impression is of a woman straight out of the 50's. She's wearing glasses and has short brown hair. Three other cases are heard first. There is a final ruling in a car jacking case where an individual was injured. There was a case against the Walt Disney company that is given a trial date in October, next year. Another case where only one attorney showed up. The defendant's counsel did not respond to some motions filed by the plaintiff. The plaintiff's attorney then decided on a bench trial instead of a jury trial. Next, the Rasmussen case was called.
Taylor tells Judge White where the criminal appeal stands regarding the filed briefs. The Attorney General's responding brief was filed on November 8, 2013. A trial date of May 12, 2014 is put on Judge White's calendar. A final, pre-trial status conference of May 7, 2013 is also scheduled. And that's it.
At minimum, it could take at least two months or more for Lazarus' defense to file a responding brief to the Attorney General's response. It will probably be another couple of months after that before oral arguments are scheduled. Then, the state has about two months to issue a ruling on the appeal.
I am still trying to get a copy of Lazarus' appeal brief, just to see the arguments that were raised. For some unknown reason, the LA County Library has not been able to locate a copy of the brief yet. As soon as I get it, I will publish it.
Once Taylor moves for a summary judgement in this case, it will be up to Judge White to make a determination as to what the damages will be. In wrongful death suits, it's usually the spouse who is in first position to sue. Next in line after a spouse are children; after that are parents. It's my understanding that John Ruetten does not want any part of this civil lawsuit against Lazarus. Since John and Sherri didn't have children, that leaves her parents. There's loss of love, affection and pain and suffering. It's difficult to understand how a value can be placed on a human life, but somehow, the court must do exactly that.
It's unknown what Mark Overland's strategy will be, once the criminal appeal is finished. Most likely, Taylor will put Nels and Loretta Rasmussen on the stand to describe the relationship they had with their daughter. From that testimony, Judge White will first decide compensatory damages then punitive damages. It's my understanding that Lazarus' pension cannot be attached by a lawsuit. The modest home she bought in Simi Valley after the 1994 earthquake is now in her husband's name. There are no big assets to go after, like there were in the Spector case. However, once Judge White makes her ruling on damages, that will follow Lazarus for life.
After the hearing, Matthew and I dropped by the Law Library to check on the status of obtaining a copy of Lazarus' appeal. Next hearing date: May 7th, 2014.