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