Hearings in the serial killing case of Randy Steven Kraft were abruptly halted Tuesday after Superior Court Judge James K. Turner underwent emergency heart surgery.
Orange County Presiding Superior Court Judge Harmon G. Scoville ordered the Kraft pretrial hearings postponed to Feb. 5, and told attorneys he will assign a new trial judge to the case.
Turner, 59, is reportedly doing well following quadruple-bypass surgery at Hoag Memorial Hospital Presbyterian in Newport Beach. But Scoville said it would be unfair to ask Turner to undergo the rigors of the Kraft trial, which is expected to last at least a year, during his recovery.
Scoville said he will submit the names of three other judges to attorneys in the case within a week in a bid to avoid further delays.
"Frankly, I'm still numb from the news of Judge Turner's illness," said C. Thomas McDonald, one of the three Kraft attorneys. "But Judge Scoville's decision was wise, and we're going to cooperate with him in every way."
The trial has already been postponed nine times since Kraft's May 14, 1983, arrest, following arguments by his attorneys that they have not had adequate time to prepare his defense.
Kraft, 42, is charged with 16 murders, but prosecutors have added 21 others to the case in efforts to get a death verdict. All the victims were young men, most of them ages 18-25. The 37-victim case is unprecedented in California.
Both prosecutors and Kraft's attorneys had been pleased that Turner got the assignment as the trial judge because they consider Turner to be the most evenhanded of all the judges who might have heard the case.
Turner, who has been on the bench more than 18 years, is one of the most respected judges in the courthouse. The last several years he has been one of few assigned to death-penalty or lengthy criminal cases.
This summer, Turner refused for the first time any further defense delays in the Kraft trial date. Turner scheduled a Dec. 7, 1987, date and soon after that began conducting pretrial hearings. While several defense motions are still pending before the trial can begin, Turner has been listening to the first issue--the validity of search warrants in the case--for nearly four months.
Turner on Dec. 7 postponed the trial date to at least Feb. 1, 1988, to allow time for the rest of the pretrial hearings.
Presiding Judge Scoville said that a trial date now appears more likely to be March or April, but only if he can get a new judge aboard on the case soon.
Scoville said he hopes that Turner will be able to complete the hearing on search warrants, perhaps by working part time, but that all other pretrial hearings will probably be turned over to the new trial judge.
"Our first concern, of course, is Judge Turner's recovery," Scoville said. "He is one of the best criminal judges we've ever had, and certainly he is one of the most popular."
It's uncertain what will happen to the lengthy search warrant hearing if Turner cannot return to the bench by February.
"We've invested four to five months in that hearing, and I know neither side wants to see that time wasted," Scoville said.
Turner is one of five Superior Court judges who are candidates to fill the empty seat on the Santa Ana division of the Fourth District Court of Appeal. Scoville is also one of those candidates. Should Scoville be elevated, Turner is considered in line to replace him as presiding judge in Superior Court.
Turner's emergency surgery came as a surprise to lawyers in the Kraft case.
Deputy Dist. Atty. James P. Cloninger said he called the courtroom shortly before 9 a.m. Tuesday to make sure the hearing would start on time. Orange County Sheriff's Department Sgt. James A. Sidebotham, chief investigator on the Kraft case, was scheduled to return to the stand.
Turner had gone to Hoag Hospital for tests Monday, when doctors found a serious blockage of his heart valve and insisted that he remain and undergo surgery the next morning, according to court officials.
Scoville said that he talked to Turner Monday afternoon and that Turner said doctors were optimistic for a full recovery.
"It's a blow, because he's such a wonderful judge," Cloninger said. "You want to see him go on forever doing what he does so well."
Turner, a 1954 graduate of Loyola University Law School, was appointed to the West Municipal bench in 1969. Two years later, then-Gov. Ronald Reagan elevated him to the Superior Court bench.