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Accused Cops Find a Friend in O.C. Lawyer

Law: Immigrant beating case is latest challenge for ace defender John Barnett.

April 14, 1996|KEN ELLINGWOOD | TIMES STAFF WRITER

ORANGE — A cop is accused of crossing the line--and attorney John D. Barnett is in the maelstrom once again.

The bookish defense lawyer has been up since 2 a.m. to appear on a network morning show in defense of his latest high-profile client, one of the two Riverside County officers whose videotaped beating of undocumented immigrants set off an international furor.

By noon, a parade of television crews has trooped through Barnett's Orange suite. The telephone chirps endlessly with calls from everyone from "60 Minutes" and CNN to local Spanish-language TV stations. Barnett flips through a stack of message slips as a CBS News crew packs up its gear.

"It hasn't died down," Barnett says, settling in for one more interview.

If he feels a strong sense of deja vu, there is good reason.

Barnett, 48, known as one of the winningest criminal-defense lawyers in Orange County, represented Los Angeles Police Officer Theodore J. Briseno in the 1992 state trial over the police beating of Rodney G. King. The verdict forms--not guilty, twice--now hang framed on the law office wall.

Barnett since has made a name for himself defending a string of more than a dozen police officers accused of crimes ranging from brutality to theft, rape and even murder. He has not lost a cop case.

So after watching television reports on the April 1 police chase and beating incident involving Deputies Kurt Franklin and Tracy Watson, Barnett was not surprised when he got the call from the Riverside Sheriff's Assn. to represent Franklin. Amid instant comparisons to the King beating case, Barnett launched an aggressive defense of his client's conduct, portraying the speeding truckload of Mexican immigrants as menacing lawbreakers and accusing critics of convicting the officers before trial.

"We've been down this road before, and we know how disastrous it is for these premature pronouncements and predictions," Barnett said in an interview. "If these guys are found not guilty that could be a problem, based on people finding them guilty now."

If criminal charges are filed against his client, prosecutors can expect to face off against a tenacious trial whiz admired by colleagues for his meticulous preparation and a deceptively low-key courtroom style that can reduce hostile witnesses to shreds.

"He's not the kind of guy who needs to scream and yell to make a point," said Orange County Deputy Dist. Atty. Clyde Von Der Ahe, who did battle with Barnett in a felony assault case against a former Long Beach officer. The charges were dismissed after two juries deadlocked.

"His style is the plodding along, to know the case inside out. He's not the kind to beat you with a home run," Von Der Ahe said, "but he gets a lot of baserunners and base hits."

Barnett added to his winning reputation with the stunning acquittal last year of former Marine Cpl. Thomas R. Merrill, who had been convicted in a 1989 double murder and sentenced to life in prison before Barnett and co-counsel William J. Genego took the case and won a new trial. The Merrill case, which went to a third trial before the acquittal, was one of five high-profile murder trials that Barnett handled in Orange and Los Angeles counties over the past two years. Each ended in acquittal or hung jury, with charges eventually dropped.

Barnett is one of two lawyers defending Orange County Supervisor William G. Steiner against official misconduct charges stemming from the collapse of the county investment pool. On Monday, he begins trial in an excessive-force case involving two police officers in San Bernardino County.

"He's as well-prepared as any lawyer you'd ever go up against," said Superior Court Judge Richard F. Toohey, a former murder prosecutor who tried several cases against Barnett. "He's not a lawyer, if you're going up against him, that you want to take long naps during the trial."

In the Merrill case, Barnett and Genego were able to persuade jurors that another Marine already convicted in the robbery murder at a Newport Beach coin shop was the sole killer. That meant countering witness accounts of a second gunman. By zeroing in on the color of a man's shirt, the defense team showed that witnesses may have mistaken the shop's co-owner for a second attacker.

Barnett is still remembered for winning a 1990 mistrial for Dr. Thomas Gionis after the defense lawyer, during cross-examination of a district attorney's investigator, produced a tape recording that contradicted the testimony and left holdout jurors convinced the investigator was not telling the truth. Gionis, who was charged with plotting an attack on ex-wife Aissa Wayne, the daughter of John Wayne, later switched defense lawyers and was convicted in 1992.

"A major factor [for the jury deadlock] was a loss of confidence the jury had in the people's case," said attorney William Kopeny, a longtime Barnett friend who was co-counsel in the Gionis case. "John makes it look like anyone could have done it. That's the marvelous preparation he's done, showing."

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