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Outburst Alters Jury's Finding

Courts: Panel members renege on three-strikes conviction after defendant's pleas. Prosecutors say guilty verdict should stand.

May 15, 1996|ALAN ABRAHAMSON | TIMES STAFF WRITER

When the jury came back with a verdict that he was guilty of possessing 0.07 of a gram of cocaine, Henry Jackson Jr. let loose with an emotional outburst that apparently shocked jurors into changing their minds.

As the word "guilty" resounded through the wood-paneled courtroom, Jackson stood and picked up the heavy table in front of him. As it crashed back down to the floor, he cried out to jurors: "I want you all to know you put me away for 25 to life."

A Los Angeles Superior Court judge tried to shush him. But Jackson continued. "On some dope the police set me up with," he said. "This ain't right!" he yelled. Bailiffs had to carry him away.

A few minutes later, jurors were asked again if indeed the verdict was guilty--asked this time not as a group, but individually. Apparently shaken by Jackson's outcry, two changed their minds and said no--including the foreman. The judge sent them back to the jury room to resume deliberations.

The next day, what had appeared to be a conviction under the state's "three strikes" law ended in a mistrial, provoking concern that others facing the 25-years-to-life prison term the law mandates also might try to undo a conviction by acting up in court and playing to jurors' emotions.

The case, which ended last week at the Criminal Courts Building, has prompted a boycott of the judge's courtroom by some prosecutors. And it has stirred debate over a simple, but highly technical, legal issue: When is a conviction truly a conviction?

Defense attorneys say there never was any conviction. State law--written in 1872 and in stilted style--says jurors may be asked individually about a verdict, and if "anyone answer in the negative, the jury must be sent out for further deliberation."

"It happens that when individually required to speak from their heart . . . [jurors'] uncertainties come out apart from what happened in this courtroom," Deputy Public Defender Leslie Ringold said in court, according to a transcript.

Prosecutors maintain that Jackson was properly convicted after the foreman handed over the forms to the court clerk and the clerk read the guilty verdicts aloud. "So say you one, so say you all?" the clerk inquired of jurors before Jackson's outburst. All answered yes.

Prosecutors intend to ask an appellate court to declare that Jackson was, at that point, properly convicted. Otherwise, several deputy district attorneys said, word quickly will get around that an outburst in court can produce a mistrial.

Problems already have surfaced in "three strikes" cases in other Criminal Courts Building courtrooms. In Judge Carolyn Kuhl's court, a defendant facing a third strike tried to throw a table late last week after the judge issued a ruling he didn't like.

And in Judge William Pounders' court, a juror deciding a "three strikes" case said last Friday--after a partial verdict had been returned--that he no longer was comfortable with his vote.

The defendant apparently whispered a comment to the juror that made him edgy. Ultimately, however, the juror stayed on the case.

Forty-five prosecutors have opted to boycott the courtroom of Commissioner Timothy Murphy, a former veteran public defender now sitting as a temporary judge.

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