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Prosecutors Wary of Letting Judges Decide Cases : Courts: Move to jury trials has been prompted by the acquittal of some murder defendants or conviction on a less serious charge.

February 06, 1995|DWAYNE BRAY | TIMES STAFF WRITER

In an unusual trend, prosecutors are refusing to allow Ventura County judges to decide some of their most serious criminal cases because prosecutors believe that they have a better chance of conviction with the county's conservative jurors, several top trial attorneys said.

Judges have infuriated prosecutors in recent months by either acquitting murder defendants or convicting them on the least serious homicide charge.

Since then, prosecutors have demanded jury trials even in several cases in which the defendants have waived their rights to a jury and agreed to allow a judge to determine their fate.

The trend is unusual because prosecutors are normally more than willing to take cases before the county's criminal bench, which is largely made up of former deputy district attorneys. But some attorneys said they have noticed more prosecutors insisting on trials by jury.

"I think it's a reflection of the belief that a jury is going to be more easily inflamed against people who are accused of committing crimes of violence," said George C. Eskin, a criminal defense attorney who is handling a case in which prosecutors have insisted on a jury.

Superior Court Presiding Judge Melinda A. Johnson said her fellow judges are aware that prosecutors have recently refused to waive jury trials in some cases. But, she said, they are not overly troubled by it.

"We have a lot of other hot issues to worry about," Johnson said.

But some judges have been upset with prosecutors since April, when the district attorney's office used a legal maneuver to remove one of the county's most experienced judges from the criminal bench.

That action came after Superior Court Judge Lawrence Storch reduced a jury's verdict of first-degree murder to second-degree murder.

Prosecutors disqualified Storch by refusing to allow any criminal cases to go before him, leaving the judge with no work to do. Storch was later reassigned to handle civil cases.

Most of the judicial rulings against prosecutors came after the Storch disqualification, leading some prosecutors and defense attorneys to theorize that the judges were retaliating. Those same prosecutors have also speculated that it is a reason why their superiors have refused to accept non-jury trials that give judges more authority in serious cases.

But Johnson scoffed at such conjecture. She said the judges are too principled to engage in petty retaliation.

"I haven't heard anything that would lead me to believe that we have some kind of clampdown on the D. A.'s office," Johnson said.

Chief Deputy Dist. Atty. Ronald C. Janes, speaking for the district attorney's office, said prosecutors have no indication of retaliation.

"I've got to believe that the judges are applying the law to the facts in each and every case," he said. "And they can't be influenced by facts beyond that case. And I have no reason to believe that they are."

In recent months, prosecutors have not always been pleased with the way judges have ruled on their cases.

Beginning last spring, a series of unrelated but important verdicts have gone against them in non-jury trials.

In May, Superior Court Judge Allan L. Steele convicted a Simi Valley eighth-grader of involuntary manslaughter in the fatal stabbing of a 14-year-old classmate. Prosecutors had wanted the youth convicted of the more serious charge of second-degree murder.

In October, Superior Court Judge Charles W. Campbell Jr. convicted a Thousand Oaks teen-ager of involuntary manslaughter rather than murder in fatally shooting his girlfriend while playing with a loaded gun.

Later that month, Campbell dismissed a murder charge against two Ventura men. Prosecutors had charged them with killing a man who died a day after the pair had brutally kicked him during a robbery.

And last month, Judge Charles R. McGrath acquitted the main defendant in a shooting that left two Westlake High School football players hospitalized.

Janes acknowledged that each of those rulings came out differently than prosecutors had hoped. "I think there is concern in each individual case," he said.

But Janes said it would be a mistake to tie the disappointment over those rulings to any reluctance that prosecutors have to non-jury trials.

Prosecutors have not lost faith in the county's bench, he said. "As a general tenet," he said, "in most cases, we're willing to waive jury."

As a practical matter, judges say they would like to see jury trials waived more often. Without juries, judges can move through cases more quickly and relieve the pressure that a glut of backlog cases is putting on the criminal courts.

Right now, they are barely getting some cases to trial before the deadlines for dismissing charges against defendants, Johnson said.

The problem could be severely reduced with fewer jury trials, she said.

"You can eliminate all the time you have selecting a jury," she said. "Right off the bat, in a felony case, that could be a day right there."

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