Superior Court Judge John W. Ouderkirk sharply criticized defense attorneys Tuesday in the Reginald O. Denny beating case, accusing them of trying to influence the jury with published reports quoting Damian Monroe Williams denying he hit Denny with a brick.
Ouderkirk's rebuke came on a day in which six alternate jurors--three of them African-Americans--were selected to hear the case against Williams, 20, and Henry Keith Watson, 28.
Both are charged with multiple felonies, including attempted murder, in the assault on Denny and seven others at Florence and Normandie avenues as rioting broke out in Los Angeles last year. They could be sentenced to life in prison if convicted.
In interviews with The Times and KCOP-TV Channel 13 on Monday, Williams denied that he is the person shown on videotape hitting Denny with a brick. He also labeled as false a statement he made to police shortly after his arrest May 12, 1992, in which he had admitted hurling the brick.
Deputy Dist. Atty. Janet Moore, one of two prosecutors, complained that if Williams "continues to advance the position that he is not the person who threw the brick, we fully intend to litigate it in the rebuttal case."
She said prosecutors will not use in their main case any statement by Williams about what happened April 29, 1992, when rioting erupted. "But, depending on how the case unfolds," she said, "that could change."
She said there have been comments about evidence that should not be made, and she suggested that defense attorneys are attempting to try the case in the media.
Ouderkirk echoed that sentiment, saying he finds it improper for "the lawyers to participate in disseminating information about the case." He said Williams' comments "can only be to influence members of the public or the jury."
Ouderkirk hinted that he might take some action against attorney Edi M. O. Faal, who represents Williams and sat in on Monday's interview with his client.
"I can't do anything about the defendants (discussing evidence with reporters), but when it comes to the lawyers, that's a different story," Ouderkirk said.
Wilma R. Shanks, who also represents Williams, said the judge's comments were inappropriate because he should have waited to hear the response from Faal, Williams' lead attorney, who had been excused from court Tuesday.
Ouderkirk, she said, commented that he will deal with the matter Thursday when Faal returns to court for opening arguments.
"I very much regret that I was not in court today because I understand that some statements were made concerning me, and I was not there to address them," Faal said late Tuesday. "I cannot wait to respond to those allegations."
Members of Williams' defense team said Ouderkirk appeared to be trying to intimidate them.
Moore said that prosecutors want a fair trial, and that "the only way this case can be fair is that the jurors only decide it on what is presented in the courtroom."
Williams' supporters were quick to challenge her assertion that prosecutors are seeking fairness.
"Doesn't Damian have a right to defend himself?" asked Molly Bell, a community activist and a friend of Williams' family. She said prosecutors had released the alleged confession Williams made to police and filed and later dropped an allegation that he was a gang member.
"Now it's our turn to just say a few words, and everybody is upset," she said. "That's not fair."
If fairness were the issue, she said, Williams would not be held on $580,000 bail. "Don't you think Damian should have a chance to prove to the people that he is not a thug, that he is not this monster they accuse him of being? He has a right to let people know that he is a decent human being, that he came from a decent family."