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Wheels of Justice: Mired in Delays

October 20, 1985|PAUL FELDMAN | Times Staff Writer

Three years--and 24 court continuances--after pleading no contest to six counts of security fraud stemming from an investment scheme in which dozens of schoolteachers and retirees lost $1.3 million, a Pasadena producer may finally be sentenced Monday.

George Le Fave, who declared bankruptcy after having promised returns of up to 40% on investments spearheaded by the TV distribution of an animated cartoon called "The Bear That Slept Through Christmas," is due back in Los Angeles Superior Court with his counsel, Howard L. Weitzman.

The long-running sentencing saga has drawn the wrath of authorities and victims, who say the delays make a mockery of the concept of speedy justice and illustrate the degree to which the legal system can be manipulated by a shrewd defense attorney.

Court records show that 18 of the postponements have come at the request of Weitzman, who has been busy working on two celebrated cases. Weitzman began defending auto maker John Z. DeLorean on drug-trafficking charges one month after Le Fave's first scheduled sentencing date. He is currently representing DeLorean in a racketeering case and Cathy Evelyn Smith, accused of murder in the drug-overdose death of comic John Belushi.

Meanwhile, Le Fave, who faces up to six years in state prison, has remained free.

"This is indicative of a real problem; continuances are used as a ploy," said Los Angeles County Dist. Atty. Ira Reiner. "There are many legitimate reasons for continuances. But when you get to the point of 24 of them . . . that comes under the heading of who's kidding whom. The effect here is to stall the hearing for as many times as possible."

Reiner, who called Le Fave "a crook . . . who belongs in the state penitentiary," also criticized Weitzman.

"It's wrong, damn right it's wrong," Reiner said in an interview. "A defense attorney is not supposed to come in and turn in his client, but there are responsibilities when you come in and ask for a continuance. It's necessary to distinguish between a reason and an excuse."

Weitzman, on the other hand, said he has had valid excuses for the delays and accused Reiner of demagoguery.

"(He says) I don't care about justice, I just care about my clients' interest. I thought they were one and the same," Weitzman mused. "Once a political hack, always a political hack."

Deputy Dist. Atty. Robert M. Youngdahl, who prosecuted Le Fave, said he has "never heard of such a case (before)."

"In a sense, the client has been granted probation without ever having been sentenced. . . . He's walking around (free)."

Youngdahl does not personally blame the noted criminal lawyer.

"The basic problem we have is (that) Weitzman is properly representing his client, and the judge is doing legally what he has to do, and the (district attorney's office) is doing the best it can, and three years pass. That's ridiculous, that's amazing. And you can't fault any of the parties. That's the irony of the system."

Prosecutor's Motion

But the prosecutor also believes that enough is enough. At the last hearing date, in mid-September, Youngdahl filed a motion, which was not immediately acted on by the court, seeking Weitzman's dismissal as Le Fave's attorney.

"I think Howard Weitzman is terrific, but the problem we have is this case is 3 years old," Youngdahl later explained. "His mother would have made the same motion after three years. She would have said, 'Howie, you finish this case off.' "

At the same hearing, Weitzman was ordered by Superior Court Judge Gordon Ringer to engage in no other business that would interfere with his attending today's hearing--or risk possible contempt charges.

Weitzman, who has said he plans to be in court, complains that attacks on the continuances are unwarranted.

Unwritten Understanding

"Let's talk about real life here," he said in an interview. "Can you imagine anybody continuing a case that many times without the district attorney agreeing to it?"

In addition to scheduling problems stemming from his other cases, Weitzman said an unwritten understanding had been reached with the prosecutor that the sentencing would be delayed until the conclusion of Le Fave's bankruptcy proceedings, which are still pending. Youngdahl, however, disputed that account, saying: "The bankruptcy will go forward either way; what does that have to do with anything?"

Judge Ringer, whose part-time duty on the appellate bench resulted in several of the continuances, said he could not comment on the case since it is still pending.

Although the law calls for defendants to be sentenced within 28 days of a plea or conviction, they are entitled to waive that right. In such cases, Youngdahl said, prosecutors have little legal recourse if defense attorneys present adequate reasons for the delays. And motions to dismiss defense attorneys, he said, can prove dicey since a new counsel would need further time to prepare.

Pleaded No Contest

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