Monday, January 23, 2012

Stephanie Lazarus Pretrial Hearing 13, Part II

Murder victim Sherri Rae Rasmussen, date unknown

January 20
th, 2012
I wrote this entry over several days, down in the "dungeon" basement of Mr. Sprocket's current job project, acting as his helper. I'd get a little bit of writing done, and then I'd be called away from my laptop to hold a pipe or retrieve a tool. Sprocket

I get into downtown LA with just enough time to make it to the 9th floor if security isn’t too bad. As I’m walking past the glass windows of the rear entrance of the building, I see John Taylor (attorney for victim Sherri Rae Rasmussen’s family) standing with a tall, bald-headed black man in the cafeteria, talking to a dark haired woman working on a laptop. I don't believe I've seen the woman at the Lazarus pretrial hearings before, but it’s a good bet she’s talking to Taylor about the case.

I breeze through first floor security and head for the best spot to keep my eyes on the elevator lights. I want to grab the first one that lights up so I make it into Department 104 before 8:30 am. Success! I clear the 9th floor security and make it into Judge Perry's courtroom just in time. Sherri Rae's parents, Nels and Loretta Rasmussen are in the same spot, the center of the first row. Lazarus' mother is next to the aisle in the first row, but today there is a tall slender handsome man to her right. I believe it's Lazarus' husband, Scott.

The Dateline producer, Robert Dean is here in the second row and I take a seat on the cushioned bench to his left, almost directly behind Nels and Loretta. The court clerk is someone new that I don't recognize. John Taylor finally arrives. A few moments later, writer Matthew McGough slips quietly into the back row on the far left. I turn around and give him a smile. I make sure my phone is completely turned off and remind myself that I need to purchase a watch. Because of Judge Perry's rules about cell phones, I won't be able to use it to watch the time. Besides, the clocks in the courtrooms are notorious for never being set on time and are difficult to see from where I'm sitting. Sometime during the hearing, 48 Hours producer Greg Fisher also slips into the back row behind me, slightly to my left.

The large, barrel-chested defense investigator whose name I can never remember arrives with a shorter, older looking gray haired mustached man, casually dressed in a dark brown polo shirt and tan pants. I finally see the court reporter standing behind the clerks desk. The LAPD detective (who I think is Jaramillo) is chatting with the defense investigator. One of the court bailiffs comes over to the Rasmussen family and says something I can't hear. Judge Perry finally comes out of his chambers and takes the bench. He drops a big set of files on his desk and then goes back inside his chambers. One of the courtroom staff members says, "Let me get the clerk."

Mark and Courtney Overland come out from the jail holding area, and Lazarus comes out shortly after, carrying a type of canvas looking satchel/bag. She smiles at her husband and mother. The older, gray haired mustached man is holding a brown file folder. He approaches Mark Overland and shakes his hand. There's a very young, slender Asian looking woman sitting in one of the chairs directly behind the prosecution table in the well of the court. She wearing a medium gray colored suit, typical of what I've seen on other clerks in the DA's office.

Judge Perry is back on the bench and calls court to order. He informs the room that there are some issues regarding when they can start and it has to do with juror availability. I think he mentions something about discovery that still needs to be resolved but Overland speaks up and tells the Judge, "No need for the court to take action. It's all resolved."

Judge Perry states he had a discussion with the jury commissioner for the county. The commissioner told Judge Perry that he has been ordered to cut back on the number of jurors called to various courts. They are cutting way back because of the costs involved. To that end, the commissioner gave Judge Perry three options.

Perry states he felt this trial needed to talk to 80 to 200 jurors to get the 80 to 100 jurors that would fill out the juror questionnaire. Monday and Tuesday of the week they had planned to start the trial is a heavy day. There are lots of trials starting that day. Without getting into the details, Judge Perry was given some options. The first option was starting the trial a week early. The commissioner could give them the full compliment of jurors they wanted (200) on January 25th, and hand out juror questionnaires on that date. This would advance the start of the trial date. They would then be back on January 31st to start voir dire and start the trial on Wednesday. With this option, they could get 75 jurors at 10 am and another 75 at 11 am. Judge Perry would pre-screen them to find jurors that could sit for four to five weeks. To start the trial on January 25th, would be the jury commissioner's preference.

The second option would be to stick with the original trial date of January 30th and hand out questionnaires to those who can serve for the four to five weeks. However, the jury commissioner will only be able to provide the court 100 jurors on that day. They would be able to provide another 100 jurors the next day, Tuesday January 31st. That would mean rescheduling voir dire from February 2nd to February 3rd.

The third option would be to look at January 26th or January 27th to pre-screen jurors. Judge Perry states that he has a scheduled hearing in a capitol case on January 27th, but he could probably work around that.

Shannon Presby states the prosecution would have a problem moving up the trial. "That would not be ideal," he tells the court. Presby has a number of witnesses coming from out of town that are traveling a long distance. "Advancing the case even a few days would be difficult," he adds. Presby also mentions something about scheduling a day (before trial) for the change of custody ruling.

Mark Overland also agrees that advancing the trial date would be a problem.

Everyone agrees to settle on option number two, to pre-screen jurors on January 30th and the 31st. Judge Perry feels the time spent pre-screening should only take a half an hour. He also tell the parties that the first group to fill out the questionnaires, those would be the first jurors in the box. They would only hand out the questionnaires to those jurors able to serve. Then they would come back on that Friday, February 3rd, (for voir dire). Judge Perry states that he would hope to seat a jury that day.

Overland tells the court that a trial of five to six weeks is a more reasonable time frame (that will be needed to try the case). Judge Perry asks the parties if they want to discuss the questionnaire. He would "entertain added requests." Judge Perry ensures that all parties have his most recent version of the questionnaire.

Overland speaks up and requests the court that in the juror questionnaire, Lazarus be referred to by her full name, and not "the defendant." Judge Perry responds, "She is the defendant. I feel uncomfortable to do that. She is the defendant. It is denied."

Overland requests that the prosecution be referred to as the plaintiff. Judge Perry thinks about that request for a moment and then denies that request also, giving his reasoning that this is a criminal case. Shannon Presby has an updated list of names for the jury questionnaire and Judge Perry states that he will do the integration of the new names into the current list.

Judge Perry then tells the prosecution and defense his "vision" of what's going to happen on January 30th. They will have a list of jurors names that will be alphabetized and random. (I'm surprised at this. I think he means the juror number for court but behind the scenes the court will have their names). The court will announce and introduce the parties and what he will say to the potential jurors. "It is alleged she committed a murder (of Ms. Rasmussen). That the defendant discharged a firearm. " I believe Judge Perry asks if the prosecution would like him to tell the potential jurors that it is not a death penalty case and they agree.

Then Judge Perry would ready the charge. He would stress to the jurors the charge is not evidence and remind them about the rules of evidence. He would also stress that the defendant does not have to testify. Judge Perry would also stress the issue of publicity and stress that the jurors not be influenced (by the press). He would then ask them if they (have heard about the case) and made up their minds, or if they have specific details about the case. "We'll find out if the jurors have details about the case from the questionnaire. From this point forward, I would remind the jurors not to do research on the case."

After that, they would talk about the questionnaires. Those jurors who can serve would then go to another area where they would fill out the questionnaire and then come back (on Feb 3rd.) The prosecution and the defense both state they don't have any concerns about Judge Perry's vision for the start of the trial. Judge Perry says, "That will be it for Monday and the same thing on Tuesday. At 8:30 am on Friday, we'll bring the jurors back (for voir dire). If things come out in the questionnaires, we'll deal with it at that time, or otherwise turn it over to the attorneys." (I have a little chicken scratch of a note here, about numbers being used to refer to the jurors.)

Judge Perry also tells the parties, "We'll give each side an hour to do follow up questions. Talk to anyone you want to in the room, not just ones in the box. That's the way I would encourage you to go forward." (I've never seen voir dire done that way.) (snip) "If I see reasons in the questionnaire enough to excuse them, I will let you know and they won't even have to show up. I'm hopeful to have 70 or 80 that will fill out the questionnaire. You will know the order of seating and who they are (juror #?) in the jury box." Overland has a question that I miss and Judge Perry replies, "In voir dire, you can talk to anyone you want. After that, you get an hour. I'll be flexible if you need more time. I'll give you more time. You'll have all day to select this jury."

I don't have in my notes who asked about setting a date for the chain of custody issue, but Judge Perry answers it with, "I'm happy to select a date next week for the chain of custody."

Overland then tells the court that he has prepared a memorandum of law and he can give it to the court now. This must be in regards to the chain of custody issue the defense is raising.

Judge Perry states he thinks they should have the chain of custody hearing next week, January 25th at 10:30 am.

Mr. Presby states, "I have not seen the defense memorandum."

Paul Nunez tells the court, "I think we can address some of those issues on the 25th." I believe Nunez goes onto say, "(There are) some added witnesses that were not at the prelim and I think we need to address those next Wednesday."

I believe it's Presby who brings up the possibility of a 402 hearing on chain of custody issues. He then goes on to tell the court that he and Mr. Overland have been going through the defendant's statement (This is the video that was made of Lazarus when she was being questioned in the LAPD jail.) and there is a dispute as to whether (parts of) the defendant's statement are out or should be out. Presby states, "(There is) another section he (Overland) failed to object to and he is objecting to now."

Stephanie Lazarus, interrogation video image

Overland states his concerns were outlined in an E-mail to Presby, and that E-mail is being copied for the court. While this is going on, I note that the young Asian woman who is most likely the prosecution's clerk for this case, gets up from her seat behind the prosecutors and whispers to a tall, young dark-suited Asian looking man in the gallery. She then leaves the courtroom.

The prosecution believes they have edited the video tape according to the court's order about the defendant's statement. Overland has issues with the prosecution's interpretation of the court order.

Judge Perry states, "I've read the E-mail Mr. Overland wrote identifying the text. Page 62 line 6. I would be inclined to sustain the objection." I believe Judge Perry goes onto say, "They argue over the conflict.....that Jaramillo is asking about....the conflict is with the victim. (snip) There is a question to Lazarus about her contact, conflict with the victim."

I think it's Presby who interjects, "I don't believe that's hearsay. (snip) A conflict with a woman that took the man you loved, you would remember."

Now the question is, did you have a conflict.... Judge Perry rules, "I'm going to sustain the objection. It's going out."

Presby goes over another issue the defense has with the prosecution's video tape. "The way the tape is currently redacted, the bottom of page 89, middle of line 25, that portion is out." They then discuss the first line of (?) on line 23. (I miss the rest.)

Overland interjects, "I'm just seeking compliance with the court's order."

I think at this point it's Judge Perry who states, "I didn't say what I intended (for lines) 23-25. I meant to say to sustain that. I think that page 23, line 5 on page 90, 89.... should go out." (I know this doesn't make sense, but those are my notes that I got.)

The defense wins their motions to get more of the video tape redacted.

Judge Perry says, "I'm sorry to see that prior ruling as that was written."

Presby answers, "It is currently redacted (from?) the word "some." Judge Perry responds, "I think that's all I meant to have taken out there."

Judge Perry reads on through the written transcript of the video statement. I observe that Mark Overland has his arm draped around the shoulders of his client, Lazarus, and he is whispering intently to her.

Judge Perry says, "From the second word 'some' on line 19 to 25 (page?) of the concerns...those all come out. "

Overland has one more issue for the court. He is asking that the prosecution disclose who the additional witnesses are (for the chain of custody issue) so they can prepare. Paul Nunez responds that, "(I'm) referring to counsel (Overland) and his motion and Miss (Ocean?), and Miss Ocean died well in advance of this case. (We will) address those concerns on the 25th. He makes reference that he (Overland) recently was made aware of that."

Presby brings up the prosecution's 402 concerns about discovery. "We have received from the defense some witnesses who have been interviewed and (we have) 402 motions as to their testimony." Presby wants to know if they should address these issues before trial or before the defense case. (My notes are not clear here.) The witnesses (could be) the first investigator from the original investigation and experts and friends who knew the defendant. The original investigator was Lyle Mayer. Presby states, "Mayer provides a lot of material that we would object to at trial. We're not calling him and we'd like a 402 before trial, or opening statements or if the defense has an opening statement. (snip) We're not going to mention this in our case (in chief)."

Judge Perry answers, "Bring a 402 motion and we can talk about it on Wednesday."

Presby mentions the defense expert (I think this might be a firearms expert) and that he has not written a report about his testimony or conclusions. "We have one paragraph (of a?) report (and?) no notes." There are not reports of witnesses testimony. Judge Perry answers, "They (experts) don't have to write a report. I think they look bad when they don't." Presby continues, "Mr. Overland (stated) that he would call DNA experts or (?) experts and they are not on any witness list." Judge Perry replies, "Well, I think that's obvious..." Presby says, "Well he mentioned he was going to call (them)."

Judge Perry addresses both parties. "I think I've commented that I don't want either side to call surprise witnesses." He goes onto mention the current trial they are waiting for a verdict on and an 802 hearing. (I'll mention a bit about that case, at the end of this entry.) Presby also brings up another issue, "Mr. Overland indicated he might call Judge Shelly Torrealba and we've asked the relevance of her testimony. He said it would depend on the cross of several witnesses and he never told me who those witnesses are."

Judge Perry replies, "We'll have to wait and see. We'll cross that bridge when we come to it. If someone said something and only Shelly heard...." Judge Perry must have said something that I totally missed because Presby makes a joke in reply, "What is sleep, your honor?"

Nunez asks about available seating space for family members during voir dire and Judge Perry says they will see how many respond to the questions we have. "It will be tough," he adds. Judge Perry then adds that he is not anticipating a packed courtroom, "But, you never know." He then mentions the seating ticket lottery that the Public Information Office holds.

Overland has one last issue regarding discovery and he asks to approach the bench for sidebar. I see that Lazarus is in intense conversation with the investigator at the defense table during the sidebar. When the side bar is over, Judge Perry states, "See everyone on Wednesday at 10:30 am." Before he leaves the bench, I believe it's Presby who asks about which jury instruction set Judge Perry will use. They are going to use CAL JIC since this is a 1986 case. Now I see Lazarus and Courtney Overland in intense conversation. Since the hearing is over, I head out to the elevator bay.

At the elevator bay, I see DDA Craig Hum and ask him if Cameron Brown is being represented by a public defender. Hum tells me that Brown has, "...a court appointed attorney, Aron Laub." I ask him when the case might go to trial and he felt it would be sometime late summer. I tried to find a web site for Laub, but could not. Laub recently defended convicted serial killer, Michael Hughes.

The case with the 802 hearing.
Earlier today (Monday), I received a press release from the District Attorney's office regarding the case that was in trial in Judge Perry's courtroom during Friday's hearing. Former California Highway Patrol officer Tomiekia Johnson, 32, was found guilty of shooting her husband Marcus Lemons in the head three years ago, shortly after they left a Compton restaurant. The jury also found true the special allegations of personal discharge of a firearm and discharge of a firearm causing great bodily injury. Johnson, who had been out on bail during the trial, collapsed under the defense table as the verdict was being read. Paramedics were called and she was taken out of the courtroom handcuffed to a gurney. Judge Perry remanded her into custody. Lemons was fatally shot as he was sitting in the passenger side of Johnson's BMW near a 91 freeway off-ramp around 11 pm on February 21st, 2009. She then drove the car to her parents home in Compton and had her mother call police. Johnson is facing 50 years to life in prison and will be sentenced March 9th, 2012.

Updated January 24th, 2012 to correct spelling and a factual error. Sprocket.


Starbright said...

Sprocket, thanks so much for the update. I am so anxiously awaiting this trial. You do such good reporting and I hang on every word. I love how you tell us what your eyes see. I hope Mr. Sprocket can spare you for the duration of the trial.

Thanks again.


Larry L. said...

Thank you for your meticulous reporting. I've been interested in this case since first seeing the story on 48 Hours a long time ago. Without your reporting, the progress of this case would be totally invisible.

Anonymous said...

Thanks for a clear picture of what went on in the hearing. This is a trial we have been waiting for.

David In TN

Kathy said...

Many thanks for your "I feel like I'm sitting in the courtroom" reporting. You provide such wonderful detail.

Yes, and Mr. Sprocket needs to get his big projects under control because we need you in the courtroom. He is just going to have to share you with the rest of us.

Looking forward to your next writeup.


Anonymous said...

First thank you for following this trial. Living on the East Coast I have read no info on this trial but for you. I could understand why the defense wanted the defendant referred to by her name. I have a difficult time keeping the names straight. Ruetten/Rasmussen. Sherri Rae/Stephanie. For me, much easier to follow reading defendant/Sherri-Rae. We must never forget the victim's name. As for the voir dire, two years ago as a family member of the victim, that is exactly what they did in picking the jury. Both prosecutor and defense tossed questions out to the potential jury pool (about 60) and one could absolutely see where they were going and who they might want to eliminate...age being foremost by defense attorney.

Unknown said...

thanks for sharing information.. nice article..