Wednesday, May 9, 2018

Monica Sementilli & Robert Baker, Pretrial 2

Previous post on the case can be found HERE.

Fabio Sementilli 

May 9, 2018
It was a very quick hearing today.

It's 8:15 am when I arrive on the 9th floor of the downtown Los Angeles Criminal Court. There was a line of 10 people at the security station. The sheriff's deputies are trying to figure out why alarms are going of on the scanner. As we wait, the line continues to grow. A technician shows up but the problem isn't solved. The deputies start to move people through the line, manually looking through bags. That lasts a few minutes and is eventually abandoned after I hear a sheriff deputy say something about jurors and that everyone went through a scanner when they entered the building on the first floor.

Before 8:30 am, Dept. 101 it's already open. Judge Coen is out of his robe and behind his clerk's desk. Baker's defense attorney, Michael  Simmrin is in the well and chatting with the court. I take my favorite spot at the end of the second bench row.

Sitting in the well of the court is a tall bald man wearing a black suit. With him is a very young boy, around three or four years old. The little boy looks around, sees me and smiles. I smile back. He's very curious, looking around at everything. I'm wondering if there is another case that will be heard before the Baker/Sementilli case. After a moment, I hear the bald man mention the word "chocolate". He then gets up, goes to the candy jar on the edge of the clerks desk. He comes back to his seat beside the young boy and opens up his hand, offering him a piece of candy.

8:30 AM
Leonard Levine and Blair Berk arrive. They greet Judge Coen and chat with Simmrin.

8:32 AM
DDA Beth Silverman arrives. Beth is wearing an outfit I've seen before. A black dress paired with a loose, gray and white flecked jacket. The jacket has tiny frills along the seams and several flairs at the hip.  A moment later Terri Keith from City News arrives and takes a seat in the row directly behind me. We exchange hellos.

8:34 AM
It happened quickly. Judge Coen is in his robe and on the bench, but I don't think he's called the case on the record yet. The defendants have not been brought out. DDA Silverman and Simmrin are in a conversation. Simmrin is signing a document for her, probably for receipt of discovery. DDA Silverman and the defense attorneys are talking evidence. I believe DDA Silverman is telling Levine that he needs to provide her with a drive to receive the next batch of evidence. DDA Silverman answers a question from one of the defense attorneys with, "You should have received that in discovery batch number four."

I believe counsel tells the court they are ready to go. Terri Keith leaves for a moment then comes back. The bald man with the young boy instructs the boy that they are going to move from the well of the court to the gallery. They take a seat where police officers often sit, in the front row of the short aisle beside the bailiff's desk. Levine is having a conversation with his tech expert.

The bailiff brings out Monica Sementilli first. As with all defendants I've seen brought into court, the bailiff handcuffs her to the chair. She sits in the same seat as the last time. Her attorney Berk is directly to her right and Sementilli leans to speak to her. Levine is to the right of Berk. Sementilli looks no different than the last hearing, wearing a blue jumpsuit. I believe there was some misunderstanding about my description of Sementilli's hair. She does not have gray hair. She has dark brown roots. The ends of her hair are a lighter, reddish blond color. On the LASD inmate locator website, at the time of her arrest, the color of Sementilli's hair was listed as BLN (blond).

Baker is brought out next and placed in the same seat as before, at the end of the table and facing the jury box. Simmrin is to his right. The case goes on the record.

DDA Silverman informs the court that copies were made of the SUNLIFE documents and given to the defense. The originals were returned to the court. She informs the court they are working on getting all the discovery to the defense and that the defense has asked for a second type of "extraction". I believe she means on other devices that were seized in the search warrant.

Judge Coen asks the parties "What do we do now?" The parties inform the court they would like to return on June 5.  Levine tells the court that they want the court to set a "cut off date" for the prosecution to get all the discovery to the defense.

DDA Silverman informs the court, "The court is aware ... counsel has asked for a different type of extraction on several devices." DDA Silverman tells the court the defense wants this on more than "30 items".  The people are still working on their standard, recommended type of extraction that they do. The last thing that they will do will be this extra extraction request for the defense.

Levine tells the court they are almost a year out from arrest and they don't have all the discovery yet. Simmrin tells the court that he is no way ready. He's only been representing his defendant for five months. "I need time to prepare." He has a DNA analyst who is asking for more information and more time. He also has a cell phone expert.

The court asks all parties if they agree to come back on June 5 and set the case calendar on that date as zero of sixty. June 5 is set for a discovery status update.

Levine brings up to the court that there are a number of items seized that were "outside the search warrant". He would like the court to order them returned.  The court answers, "I"m not going to do this like this."  Levine states that the executor of the estate informs him that the items seized were community property. Levine is asking if the items can be released to the estate.  The court informs Levine to write it up in a motion and he will sign it.

DDA Silverman states that, like she's mentioned to the court, she has discussed the discovery issues ad nauseam through emails to defense counsel.

And that's it for the hearing.

The next post can be found HERE

Note from Sprocket
I would like to point new readers to T&T's ABOUT PAGE. T&T is an independent journalism effort. There is no organization or grant, that pays for me to go to court, purchase documents and write a story on the court hearings I attend. T&T is supported 100% by reader donations. If you appreciate the stories that T&T provides with no advertising on the site, please consider clicking on the donation button. Thank you.

Wednesday, May 2, 2018

Jennifer Francis v. LAPD Civil Case

Stanley Mosk Courthouse, downtown Los Angeles.

UPDATE 12:30 pm
correction in speaker's name from Taylor to McNicholas
UPDATE 9:25 am
minor spelling errors corrected. Sprocket
April 26, 2018

On Thursday, April 26, after the Gargiulo hearing in the morning, I stayed for lunch so I could drop in on an afternoon hearing in a civil case that my friend Matthew McGough has been following. For those of you who don't know, McGough is writing a book on the Stephanie Lazarus case.

This case is in Department 56 at the Stanley Mosk Courthouse and relates to the Lazarus case. And let me tell you, from my perspective, it was a bizarro day for an afternoon court session. I've attended a few of the hearings in this case over the past few years but this is the first time I'm writing up my notes in detail. Civil cases can be just as complicated as a long cause criminal trial and I had a great deal of difficulty following what was going on.

For those of you who followed the Stephanie Lazarus murder trial, Jennifer Francis is the LAPD criminalist who developed the female DNA profile back in February 2005.

On October 30, 2013, Francis sued the LAPD alleging harassment and retaliation for alerting her superiors to a possible cover-up in the Stephanie Lazarus case. I highly recommend reading the complaint to get an understanding of what this case is about. 
The LA Times published a article when the lawsuit was filed and there was a write up by City News Service in My News LA.

Francis is represented by Courtney McNicholas and John Taylor of Taylor Ring. I first met John Taylor at the Phil Spector trial, when he represented the family of Lana Clarkson in their wrongful death suit against the music mogul. Taylor also represented the parents of murder victim Sherri Rae Rasmussen, Nels and Loretta Rasmussen in their lawsuit against the City alleging an LAPD coverup. That case was dismissed.

The Francis case is slated to go to trial October 1, 2018. Civil cases filed in California must be brought to trial in five years or the case is dismissed without prejudice. Section 583.310 California Code of Civil Procedure. 

The Stanley Mosk Courthouse was renamed in 2002 after Justice Stanley Mosk. The courtrooms in this 1950's building are truly tiny, little square boxes. There are only 13 seats in the jury box and just a few dozen in the gallery.  And trust me, the old flip down style seats are not that comfortable if you have extra padding on your hips.

Inside Dept. 56, 1:30 pm

John Anthony is the attorney for the City (LAPD). McNicholas & Taylor work at setting up their files. McNicholas is wearing a nice black suit and Taylor, wearing a light gray suit looks like he just walked out of a Brooks Brothers ad. Matthew McGough is here. 

 It’s been about three weeks since I last saw Matthew at his 10th annual “Baseball Hot Stove Dinner,” and I almost didn’t recognize him in his white shirt, dark jacket and Dodger blue tie. I'm comforted that, despite wearing a jacket and tie, he is wearing jeans like I always do. I notice for the first time that Matthew is sporting some gray hair. Matthew has been keeping tabs on all things related to Lazarus since June 2009.

Before the hearing starts, Francis comes over to us and mentions something about the Golden State Killer. The news broke of an arrest in that 40 year cold case a day or two earlier. Joseph DeAngelo was a former cop who was fired for shoplifting in 1979. His DNA was never entered into CODIS.   Jennifer speculated if the arrest didn’t come through CODIS, did the investigators utilize a public DNA data base to nab their killer. Later that day, news broke that Jennifer’s theory was correct.

Judge Holly Fujie takes the bench.

Judge Fujie issued a tentative order denying plaintiff’s motion for sanctions on the City for not complying with discovery demands, deposition subpoenas, and producing witnesses for depositions. Judge Fujie says she assumes the plaintiffs would like to argue the tentative order.

Taylor tells the court it’s not the sanctions they wish to argue it’s the outstanding issues with discovery and depositions. Taylor tells the court the City has not produced all the documents the plaintiff is entitled to.

Judge Fujie tells the parties, “I will go back and take a look at this. This case is...” 

McNicholas offers the description, “Unwieldy.”

Judge Fujie replies, “Yes.”

A bit of background on Department 56. Judge Fujie was only recently assigned to Dept. 56, within the last few months. The previous judge in Dept. 56 was Judge Michael Johnson. Incidentally, back in 2010, Judge Johnson was once assigned to the downtown criminal court, Dept. 108, where he presided over the Michael Gargiulo preliminary hearing. 

In the Francis case, because of prior discovery disputes, the parties agreed to split the cost of a discovery referee, a retired judge, Judge Cooper. McNicholas tells the court they’ve paid $60,000 to the referee in just three months (October, November and December 2017). That means the City has paid the same amount, in taxpayer money.

According to McNicholas, the discovery referee ordered the City to produce documents regarding Detective Cliff Shepard. 

Judge Fujie replies, “I came in at the end of the case.”

I’m amazed the court implied on the record that the court is not familiar with what’s been going on with this case. As a court watcher, I understand that our courts are overburdened. LA County has the largest court system in the US. However, it’s the court’s responsibility when they come in on a case, to get up to speed. Judge Fujie says she wants to see the transcripts of what the discovery referee said.

The upcoming schedule is discussed.

Judge Fujie tells the parties, “I’m going to go back and take a look at the documents with the issues the plaintiff has with discovery.” The court leaves the bench to look over the case file. 

When Judge Fujie returns, she tells the parties, “I’ve gone through everything in our files. I’m going to ask a few questions and I want short answers.” The court says, “The motion for sanctions ... the issues with that motion, two feet tall, still remain.”

Apparently, McNicholas filed a monster brief of all the problems they’ve had with the City not turning over documents or not providing witnesses for depositions.

To me, it seems Judge Fujie is frustrated with McNicholas. McNicholas explains they are still waiting for the City to produce several records including emails from an Internal Affairs Sargent who investigated the Rasmussen family allegation of a coverup.

Judge Fujie asks to see transcripts of what exactly the discovery referee said. The court then tells the parties, “I want to get this case to trial ... I want a minimum of drama.”

Anthony, the City attorney responds, “I don’t have a problem producing emails. ... I just need to see if we have them and if they’re privileged.”

Judge Fujie orders the plaintiff to produce a “very specific” chart of all items the plaintiff wants the City to turn over. Judge Fujie wants the parties to get the discovery done, so the case can go to trial.  

McNicholas tells the court she thinks it’s a two to three week trial from opening to closing. The court firmly tells the parties, “This case will go forward.”

McNicholas asks the court to order the City to provide a date for the deposition for Commander Rick Webb, the former commanding officer of Internal Affairs.

Judge Fujie informs Anthony the City must give a date for Webb’s deposition by May 3. Anthony hemmed and haws, saying Webb might be out of town or on vacation. McNicholas states she can provide Webb’s phone and home address if Anthony can’t get it. 

Judge Fujie further clarifies what she wants on the chart of the outstanding discovery request. The court schedules the deadlines for the plaintiff to produce the chart and the City’s response. 

McNicholas brings up the issue of Dorothy Tucker. Dorthy Tucker was the LAPD’s Behavioral Science Services psychologist that Francis was ordered to see by her superiors.

Tucker died in December 2017, before she could be deposed. McNicholas tells the court she knows of witnesses who were ordered not to appear at scheduled depositions, inferring this is what happened with Tucker. It’s my understanding the City notified Francis’s attorneys in 2015 that Tucker was deceased. After that notification, McNicholas discovered Tucker was still alive. Then Tucker actually did die before her deposition could be taken.

The City tells the court Tucker may have been too sick to sit for a deposition. Judge Fujie tells the City to produce documentation from Tucker’s doctor that she was too sick to sit for a deposition before she died.

My eyes had already started to glaze over about 45 minutes into this hearing. I don’t know how Matthew keeps any of this information straight. 

The court and counsel set up a schedule for briefs; they will discuss Tucker and other issues on June 29.  Judge Fujie says that her priority is that the parties are prepared for an “efficient trial.”

At the end of the hearing, the trial date is moved to October 1, 2018 at 9:30 am.  Final status conference will be September 15, 2018 at 8:30 am. And that’s it for this hearing. We slowly file out of the courtroom about 3:30 pm.

I’m wondering what will happen to this case if it doesn’t go to trial by October 30.

LA Times article
My News LA Calif.
Code of Civil Procedure 583.310