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AROUND TOWN

Pizza and Justice for All

November 11, 1994|BEVERLY BEYETTE | TIMES STAFF WRITER

The trial lasted one hour, including five minutes for jury deliberations.

The jurors were seated instantly, without a challenge. Of course, as the judge observed, they were "pre-selected for their fairness and good attitude."

The charge: Petty theft.

The venue: a moot courtroom at Southwestern University School of Law.

The idea was to demystify the courts. So, Southwestern had invited gifted third-, fourth- and fifth-graders from Hoover Elementary, its adopted school and mid-Wilshire neighbor, to come on over.

First, a tour of the law library, where librarian David McFadden explained petty theft versus grand theft in accessible terms: Steal a marble, it's petty. Steal a diamond, it's grand.

"C'mon, gang," said McFadden, leading the way to a video monitor where the kids would see a film of a real petty theft trial.

A cultural faux pas. These are inner-city kids, and they wanted him to know they're not a gang. McFadden regrouped--"C'mon, group. . . ."

The youngsters arrived wearing name tags designating them as judges, prosecutors, defense attorneys, witnesses or jurors. They were to be key players in a mock trial.

First, lunch. Over pizza and Pepsi, they met the Southwestern students assigned parallel roles for this trial, mentors for a day.

Prof. Norman Garland, who would be presiding judge at the trial, introduced himself as a former criminal defense lawyer, "like Johnnie Cochran or (Robert) Shapiro," and a onetime deputy district attorney, "kind of like Marcia Clark without a skirt." This, the kids related to.

Could anyone define a juror's job? A hand shot up: A jury decides "whether someone goes to jail or whether they get to come home and play."

Be on the lookout for suspicious goings-on, the witnesses were told. Sure enough, two young men--one with a ponytail, one with a beard--were soon skulking about the room, touching purses.

A woman burst in, screaming, "Oh, my God! My purse was stolen!"

The suspects fled, but within minutes were apprehended by "police" (Southwestern security guard Nelson Kelly) and delivered, handcuffed together.

In the courtroom, Judge Garland called the proceedings to order and the "defendant," law student Charles Hausman, was brought in, having shed T-shirt and jeans for coat and tie. (The second defendant was tried in another room.)

The bench was a bit crowded, Garland sharing it with three black-robed helpers: fifth-graders Danny Chung and Rosalba Mendez and law student Carlotta Serna. Said Garland, "This is the first case in the history of the state of California to have four eminent judges sitting. . . . Mr. Hausman, you're a lucky man."

In his opening statement, "prosecutor" Jordan Thomas, a law student, warned jurors the defense was "going to try to convince you that what people saw wasn't real."

Lead "defense attorney" Paris Sahba, also a law student, was undaunted, reminding jurors that "nobody actually saw (her client) take the purse."

Time for testimony. "Ms. Witness," said the judge, asking fourth-grader Katy Hernandez to step forward. She solemnly testified that she'd seen Hausman "running out of the room."

With more than a little prodding from Thomas, his assistant prosecutors, fifth-grader Steve Cubias and fourth-grader Elvira Martinez, grilled the witness:

How long was Mr. Hausman in the room? What did you see him doing?

During questioning of the victim (law student Adrienne Liebman) and other witnesses, the youngest attorneys were a bit atypical. The judge had to remind one, "I can't hear you with your hands over your mouth." Another was too shy to ask questions.

Pizza played a major role. Professing innocence, Hausman swore that all that walking around the lunchroom was just to help himself to more pizza. "I eat a lot of pizza."

Judge Garland: "How much did you eat?"

"Five pieces."

Courtroom giggles.

Then, the moment of decision. Approaching the ladies and gentlemen of the jury, defender Sahba reminded them no one had seen Hausman take the purse. "Mr. Hausman just happened to be in the wrong place at the wrong time."

A smoke screen, countered prosecutor Thomas. "If it walks like a duck, if it quacks like a duck, it's a duck."

With a few words about presumption of innocence and reasonable doubt, the judge dispatched the nine jurors to deliberate.

"Not guilty," said one, then pleaded, "Can I go to the bathroom?" It was 8-1 for acquittal. Told he was the lone holdout, Sean Monteagudo burst into tears. (Later, his teachers assured him it's OK to stick to one's guns.)

A hung jury. The judge pondered that, then dismissed the case and released the defendant. "Insufficient evidence."

To the kids he said, "See you in law school in 12 years. . . ."

Tearful Farewell

The party guests were a who's-who of those who once lived on the meanest of city streets.

They'd gathered in LAMP Village, a onetime warehouse on Skid Row to say goodby to Mollie Lowery, who for almost a decade had given hope and a home to these homeless mentally ill.

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