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'Slow Road to Justice'

August 05, 1988

Your editorial "Slow Road to Justice" (July 21) concerning felony preliminary hearings contains some misleading assertions. I have conducted thousands of preliminary hearings, and I would suggest the following as a more accurate analysis of their utility.

First, it is in less than 3% of all such proceedings that "witnesses are presented by both sides." Routinely, only the prosecution presents witnesses and these are almost always restricted to the minimum necessary to establish the charged offense.

Courts typically hear several preliminary hearings per day often in addition to conducting other court business. I have routinely conducted 10 to 15 a day as have other judges.

The purpose of the preliminary hearings, not articulated in your editorial, is to put the prosecution to its proof. These hearings establish whether or not admissible evidence exists which is probably sufficient to convict.

This process is essential. The assertions of witnesses must be tested under oath. When the defendant hears the evidence against him, he is consistently more willing to dispose of his case by plea--as is his defense counsel.

The typical preliminary hearing requires less than one hour of court time. No jury is impanelled and minimum time is expended.

Thousands of felonies are disposed of by plea precisely because the preliminary hearing has shown conviction to be inevitable.

Your lament concerning the incredible time invested in some (few, but notorious) cases is shared by all of us within the system except, perhaps, the subject defendants.

Time-saving measures dealing with procedural aspects other than preliminary hearings could be discussed at length.

One such, for example, would involve a legislative mandate whereby the trial judge would basically choose the jury with well-controlled input from counsel. This is the federal system and works well. Studies have shown that over 50% of trial time in misdemeanors and felony trials could be saved at no loss to a fair trial by that modification alone.

In any case, the preliminary hearing is not the problem--indeed it is a well-tested and efficient answer.

RICHARD G. BERRY

Supervising Judge

San Pedro Branch

Los Angeles Municipal Court

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