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San Fernando Court Takes on a 'Kinder, Gentler' Look : Justice: A change in key players ends acrimony among prosecution and defense lawyers, leading to a sharp reduction in the backlog of cases.

March 15, 1993|JULIO MORAN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

When Judge Armand Arabian opened the San Fernando Courthouse in 1983 he dubbed it "Fort San Fernando" amid hopes that it would gain a reputation where justice would be "swift, certain and substantial."

In the nearly 10 years since, justice in the North Valley District, if not always swift, has certainly been substantial. It has meant tougher sentences than in most other courthouses in the county.

But after only two months under a new supervising judge and a new head prosecutor, a new reputation is being forged at the Spanish Mission-style courthouse, one in which justice will be "swift, firm, but fair."

"Everyone is being reasonable and talking to each other," said Judge Judith Meisels Ashmann, who took over as supervising judge of the Superior Court on Jan. 4. "With the number of cases that we have, the system will only work through plea bargaining.

"I believe that the dispositions are still tougher than in many other courts, but I want to make sure that there is swift, firm, but fair justice."

Fair justice is the key point for Bill Weiss, who heads the public defender's office in San Fernando and spearheaded a yearlong fight last year to make sentences there consistent with other courthouses.

"This courthouse is like night and day" compared to last year, Weiss said. "There is a new environment of cooperation instead of one of pugilism."

Indeed, for most of last year, tension between prosecutors and defense attorneys was so high that they rarely spoke to each other outside the courtroom. Now, attorneys from both sides of the aisle are seen talking in the hallways and eating lunch together in the courthouse cafeteria.

"I think it is more than coincidence that this courthouse is now perceived as a kinder, gentler courthouse," said Philip Nameth, the supervising attorney for Alternate Defense Counsel, a private law firm contracted with the county to represent indigent defendants. "The lines of communication are now open and cases which should have been resolved and weren't in the past are now being resolved."

A key player in this friendlier atmosphere is the new head deputy district attorney, Stephen L. Cooley, who took over Jan. 18. He replaced Billy D. Webb, a hard-nosed 31-year veteran whom many defense attorneys said controlled the courthouse.

Webb made no apologies for wanting to put criminals behind bars for as long as possible. Last year he focused on repeat drug-dealing offenders, prohibiting his prosecutors from accepting any plea bargains for less than six years in prison in such cases.

Webb based his position on a section of the state Penal Code that calls for a "full, separate and consecutive three-year term for each prior felony conviction."

Defense attorneys argued that the standard sentence in most other courthouses is three years because judges would ignore the prior conviction in exchange for pleading guilty.

Webb remained committed up to his last day on the job--Jan. 15--sending a letter to The Times complaining about a sentencing in such a case that Judge Ashmann was scheduled to impose.

The case involved a 30-year-old Panorama City woman who was arrested for a third time since 1986 on suspicion of selling drugs. She faced a maximum sentence of about 11 years in prison, but agreed to plead guilty in exchange for a seven-year sentence.

"Striking a prior in such a case is an abuse of discretion which violated the clear dictates (of the Penal Code). Moreover, it is an intellectually dishonest act," Webb said in his letter. "It is inconceivable to me that any right-thinking person, let alone a judge of the Superior Court, would want to put a drug dealer back on the street so quickly."

Ashmann declined to discuss the case, saying only that she looks at the merits of each individual case before deciding an appropriate sentence, and that the law allows a judge the discretion to strike a prior conviction.

No one is keeping statistics on the disposition of repeat drug-dealing cases, but both prosecutors and defense attorneys said more are being settled prior to trial under Cooley's tenure.

Cooley issued a staff memo this month rescinding Webb's sacrosanct policy on repeat drug-dealing cases, saying that prosecutors are now free to evaluate all cases individually, and where appropriate, agree to accept the shorter sentences in exchange for a guilty plea.

The new policy is welcomed by defense attorneys.

"I think the prosecutor's office is doing the right thing in that they are taking a plea to a charge, defendants are admitting the prior convictions, and then allowing judges to use discretion," Weiss said. "The system in San Fernando is now working the way it should for the first time."

"Mr. Cooley has a reputation for being fair-minded," said James E. Blatt, a private defense attorney who has been trying cases in San Fernando since it opened. Instead of being at loggerheads, he said, prosecutors and defenders resolve cases.

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