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AROUND TOWN

Long Way to Come to Judge L.A. Law

July 29, 1994|BEVERLY BEYETTE | TIMES STAFF WRITER

The 16 judges took their places at a horseshoe-shaped table in the boardroom of the State Bar Assn.'s Downtown offices. They had come to learn about L.A. law.

They listened intently as a public defender, a deputy district attorney and a Superior Court judge explained such basic concepts as presumption of innocence, plea bargaining and right of appeal.

And they were invited to ask questions. Surely, they would be eager for more details about the O.J. Simpson murder case.

O.J. who ? Never heard of him.

The Menendez brothers? Never heard of them.

Rodney King? They did see something about him on TV, but details were foggy. "It seemed like it was a big case in L.A.," said Judge Wu Hong Qi.

These judges weren't from Mars. They were from rural China.

A delegation of 16 from Sichuan, a province of 100 million people in southwestern China, spent a week here at the invitation of the Southern California Chinese Lawyers Assn. before going on to Washington, D.C.

They observed a criminal trial and, reported Chinese American attorney Wendy Huang, a SCCLA board member, were "intrigued about the jury system. There is no jury system in China.

"They don't really understand that you can distinguish between the legal and factual issues in a case" and find it "kind of preposterous" that 12 citizens with no legal training make life-or-death decisions.

And, Huang added, they were astounded at the size and formality of the courts. In Sichuan Province, she said, a case would typically be heard by a judge in a small office, with a few chairs pulled up around a table.

Escorted by Ken Fang, an L.A. County deputy public defender, the Chinese judges also toured County Jail, where they were a bit of a curiosity to inmates filing past on their way to dinner.

The Chinese found the facility "very clean" but were intimidated by its size (6,100 average daily population). In China, said Judge Wu, the delegation head, an accused goes to jail only after sentencing and, until then, is held in another facility.

Later, they asked why so many inmates were African American. They were told many of these men could afford neither attorneys nor bail.

Sheriff's Deputy Scott Dillon, escorting them through the jail, told them how trustees "save the county a lot of money" by doing such chores as cooking and sweeping. "You don't pay them?" the visitors asked. No, Dillon said, their rewards are keeping busy and earning added privileges.

During the session at the state bar offices, the visitors asked Fang, the public defender, if his law firm worked for the government. He explained that he is a county employee, paid by the taxpayers. They understood; China, too, has a government-funded public defender system.

But the idea of capital punishment as a state-by-state option was new to them. In China, it is universal.

There was a warm welcome for Superior Court Judge Rose Hom, who apologized for not being able to address the judges in Southern Mandarin. She left China as an infant and has long since lost the language.

(All of the visiting judges were male, although there are some women judges in China.)

Later, in an interview, the visitors were asked whether justice can be "bought" in China. They were astounded when told that a wealthy defendant might spend hundreds of thousands on attorney fees.

In China, they explained, attorneys don't make those big bucks; they talk about fees in the hundreds of dollars, not the thousands.

And, in the matter of President Clinton--the sexual harassment lawsuit pending against a head of state, the notion of a public defense fund for him--did that seem bizarre to them?

Judge Wu and the others just laughed. In China, he said, "That would never happen."

Don't Leave, They're Only Killer Bees

The buzz: The first swarm of "killer bees" detected in L.A. County arrived this month, stowaways on a Dutch cargo ship en route from Guatemala.

The bees went belly-up after a 90-minute spray bath, and traps were set to snare any escapees.

But, we've been told, more are coming.

The bees are, in reality, Africanized honeybees, descendants of a core group imported in the '50s from Africa to Brazil, where they got loose during a breeding experiment. Now they're in Arizona, poised to swarm into California as early as Fall.

Panic time? Or simply the stuff of tabloid headlines?

Neither, beekeeper David Lofgren, an L.A. County Aboretum horticulturist, told a group of the curious and/or apprehensive at a gathering at the arboretum.

He thinks more danger lurks in "crossing the street."

But it pays to be bee-wise. First, let's dispel a myth or two:

The killer bee is not as big as a bat. It's slightly smaller than an ordinary honeybee and its venom is no more lethal. But killer bees breed prolifically and, when colonies get crowded, swarm in search of new digs.

This bee does not go about willy-nilly dive bombing defenseless humans.

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