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NEWS ANALYSIS : High-Profile Losses Tarnish Reputation of D.A.'s Office : Justice: Prosecutors win most cases, but failures like Menendez and McMartin invite criticism of tactics.

March 06, 1994|TED ROHRLICH | TIMES STAFF WRITER

The Los Angeles County district attorney's office doesn't just help solve mysteries anymore. It has become one.

When no one's watching, the office racks up convictions in four trials out of five.

But when everyone's watching, the office looks like a lightweight, losing far more high-publicity cases than it wins.

Consider its poor track record in some of the most klieg-lighted cases of the last decade: "Twilight Zone," McMartin, King, Denny, Menendez.

Dist. Atty. Gilbert Garcetti and his top aides say it is unfair to evaluate the office, which prosecutes more than 50,000 felonies a year, on the basis of a handful of cases that fascinated the media over a decade.

But these few failures in the spotlight leave lasting impressions and have diminished public confidence in an important crime-fighting institution.

"People are poking fun at us," Garcetti acknowledged last week during a meeting with his deputies. And that makes some career prosecutors angry.

"We're a laughingstock," said veteran Deputy Dist. Atty. Sterling Norris, who ran for district attorney in 1992. Referring to the Rodney G. King and Reginald O. Denny beating trials and the Lyle and Erik Menendez case, he said: "It's not often the D.A. can burn down half the city, alienate half the city, then turn around and lose a major murder case."

One reason for Norris' disenchantment is that the district attorney's office is expected to win. Prosecutors pick their shots, choosing which cases to file and which charges to bring, all with the help of a manual that instructs them to base their decisions partly on a belief that they can win.

"We do win most of our trials," said Pamela Bozanich, the lead prosecutor in the Menendez trial, which ended in January with juries unable to reach verdicts. "We're supposed to."

Indeed, each year for more than a decade, the district attorney's office has won convictions of the charged or lesser offenses in 75% to 80% of its 2,500 or so felony trials. The vast majority of felony cases are settled through plea negotiations.

Still, the district attorney's difficulties with cases tried under the glare of publicity are a popular topic of conversation within the legal community. Three dozen prosecutors, defense lawyers, judges and law professors interviewed for this article advanced many theories to explain why the district attorney's office has more often than not failed when in the spotlight.

Some theories centered on problems within the office, while others focused on factors that are inherent in high-publicity cases, and are thus outside the district attorney's control, such as the allure of fame.

Fame may make it more difficult for jurors to convict a defendant, even if the defendant's celebrity status is derived from his or her alleged crime, some lawyers and judges say. They cite a string of acquittals around the country in high-profile cases involving such notables as Lorena Bobbitt, Imelda Marcos, William Kennedy Smith, and just last week, the Branch Davidians.

Despite what may be a national trend, some lawyers and judges say the Los Angeles district attorney's office may be responsible for some of its own difficulties, because:

* It doesn't always tap the best prosecutors available. Some prosecutors and a judge went so far as to suggest that elected district attorneys do not want to give their most talented subordinates public platforms from which to launch political careers. The three most recently elected district attorneys, Garcetti, Ira Reiner and Robert Philibosian, reject that suggestion.

* It has had trouble hanging on to some of its better prosecutors, losing many to the judiciary. Former Gov. George Deukmejian drew on the office in extraordinary fashion, naming more than 100 Los Angeles deputy district attorneys to the bench in the 1980s. "It was nice to have one of your colleagues elevated to a judgeship but there was a price this office paid for that loss of talent," said a high-ranking deputy in the 850-lawyer office.

* Prosecutors assigned to high-profile cases are not given adequate support. Prosecutors are typically viewed by the public as having the awesome power of the state behind them. But their resources are sometimes limited compared to expensive defense attorneys on these cases. While preparing for the Menendez trial, Bozanich had to learn word processing programs so she could type her own motions; her office said there was no money to provide her with a secretary. Defense attorneys in the case had the proceeds from a multimillion-dollar estate.

* Elected district attorneys may have gotten carried away by emotions or politics and charged defendants with more crimes than they could prove. When this kind of overcharging occurs in response to public pressure, as some believe it did in the McMartin Pre-School molestation case and in the Denny beating case, a backlash can occur, resulting in a win for the defense and a loss of faith in the prosecutor's office.

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