Saturday, November 20, 2004

One of the reasons the LA Times may be losing circulation is that they keep running stories like the one that appears in this Sunday's (11/21/04) magazine section. It carries SARA CATANIA's byline, and it's titled THE LOVE COURT. The court in question is the Compton branch and Catania's woolgathering makes you wonder if she's ever been in any of LA County's courthouses.

The Compton branch is one of the busiest courts in the county with more than its share of murder, assault, drug and gang cases. Catania's point in this puzzling piece is that the Compton court has a "less-celebrated reputation -- one of tolerance, humor and humanity." The evidence she uses to prop up this argument is that a lot of the people that work there have developed a sense of community, the bailiffs make small talk with public defenders about family problems, idiosyncratic behavior is tolerated and humor sometimes breaks out in a murder proceeding. Absolutely none of this makes Compton unique in the LA County court system. People have been known to act like people in every court in the county. And to a greater or lesser degree, they do so in every court in the country. THE LOVE COURT makes you wonder how much time Catania has actually spent in court.

For instance, I've seen a defense attorney asking a DA if he could help him find the guys that broke into his house. I've seen a judge talk to a defendant about the judge's college football career like a couple of sports fans who had nothing more between them than a shared passion for the pigskin. I've seen a bailiff chatting amiably with a multiple murder defendant about the Knicks. I've had a detective ask me to do him a favor and run down the street to get a confidential witness a favorite meal that the courthouse cafeteria didn't carry. I've seen a defendant's uncle ask a coroner's forensic expert advice about a back problem. And I've seen a super macho DA break down sobbing after talking to a murder victim's sister prior to her taking the stand. This guy had been on the job for 30 years and, surprise, he was still a human being who cared about the victims and the survivors. Hang around a courthouse, any courthouse, long enough and you see it all.

In terms of people acting humanely and even cracking wise in the midst of a blood curdling murder trial is not unique to Compton. What is unique to Compton is the high percentage of hung juries and not-guilty verdicts. A prosecutor told me that it's hard to find a juror who doesn't have some sort of connection to a street gang or a convicted felon. Which may be the reason that the subhead in Catania's piece states that "the public defenders love the juries." Prospective jurors lie about their connections to criminals during voir dire and there's no way on earth that a prosecutor can check the background of every single juror. Occasionally a prosecutor will get lucky and a gang cop in court to testify as an IO or expert witness will spot a gangster's uncle, sister, cousin or girlfriend sitting in the jury box. Which may the reason that Steve Kay, the DA in Compton, is quoted that working there is "siege-like," and "Fort Apache: The Bronx."

The only thing I've ever seen in Compton court that I've never seeen anywhere else was a case of defense misconduct that by all rights should have resulted in the public defender losing her license. This was a case involving a COMPTON VARRIO TORTILLA FLATS gang member facing a murder charge. This guy had CVTF tattooed on the knuckles of his hands, one letter to each knuckle. Just like the L O V E and H A T E tattoos Robert Mitchum had on his knuckles in NIGHT OF THE HUNTER. This TF homie rolled up on two black men sitting in a car, pulled out a gun, stuck the gun through the car window and started blasting. He killed the driver and severely wounded the passenger.

The passenger was in court to testify. From the discovery, the defense attorney knew that the witness would ID the shooter because he saw the CVTF tattoos three inches from his face. So before the morning session starts, the defense attorney goes into the lockup to see her client and she brings along some makeup. She applies the makeup to her client's knuckles and covers up the tattoos.

The session starts and the prosecutor looks over at the defendant and realizes that the tattoos are gone. He asks the judge to ask the defendant to show his hands. The man refuses. The judge makes a bailiff wipe the makeup off the knuckles to reveal the CVTF tattoos.

The jury is sent out of the courtroom and the female defense attorney starts bawling like a baby, pleading for the judge not to throw her off the case and not to hold it against her client. The judge reams her a new one but surprisingly, does not take the next step to have her license yanked. In fact, she went on to greater things and is now a supervisor in the public defender's office.

That's a story unique to Compton. For some reason, Catania didn't mention it in her piece. Probably because it doesn't fit her idea of a LOVE COURT.

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