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Court Overturns Fleiss' Conviction, Orders New Trial

May 30, 1996|SHAWN HUBLER | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Charging that juror misconduct in the case of the Hollywood Madam turned "a serious proceeding into a farce," a state appeals court panel has overturned Heidi Fleiss' 1994 pandering conviction and ordered a new trial.

Although the unusual 15-page opinion by the 2nd District Court of Appeal was filed Tuesday, news of the decision did not reach the principals until Wednesday.

Rendered nearly a year and a half after the Los Feliz pediatrician's daughter was found guilty of operating one of Los Angeles' most exclusive call girl rings, the opinion found that jurors in the case traded votes to avoid a deadlock--and to satisfy a contingent who wanted to minimize her punishment.

The malfeasance, later detailed by jurors under a grant of immunity, was characterized by one judge as "a transgression worse than those with which Fleiss was charged." The jurors involved could not be reached for comment.

Fleiss--now 30, a regular at weekly Narcotics Anonymous meetings and the proprietor of a HeidiWear sportswear boutique on Santa Monica's Third Street Promenade--reacted with unmitigated joy.

"You don't know what this means to me," she blurted out before taking a more circumspect tone.

"I'm relieved that the momentum at least seems to be going forward," she added somberly. "Hopefully it will continue that way."

Deputy Atty. Gen. David F. Glassman, who argued against the reversal, called it an "ironic windfall" for Fleiss and contended that the appellate judges misunderstood the ruling of Superior Court Judge Judith L. Champagne when she determined last March that the verdict should stand.

Glassman said the appeals panel should have held a hearing to clarify Champagne's analysis of the request for a new trial, and noted that the state attorney general's office still has the option of asking the panel to reconsider its findings.

If the state attorney general does not take that option or appeal the decision to the state Supreme Court, the matter will be returned to the Los Angeles district attorney's office, where a decision will be made on whether Fleiss should be retried. Sandi Gibbons, spokeswoman for the district attorney, said the office was studying the ruling and would have no comment until after its review.

Sheila Mitrowski, who was the jury forewoman on the case, said the guilty verdict "has preyed on my conscience for a long time." She is relieved, she said, by the decision to overturn the conviction.

"I can't tell you how delighted I am by this," she said. "Justice was not served in the case. Three years in prison for what she did? Give me a break. That's outrageous."

She now views Fleiss as innocent: "The only reason for the verdict we came up with was the entrapment law was very, very technical and hard for a person without any legal background to understand. To be honest with you, a few of the male jurors decided she was guilty before we even began deliberating. And others were simply confused by the entrapment law. Looking back on it with hindsight, I can see that entrapment was at the heart of every single count."

The state appeals court decision adds yet another colorful chapter to the saga of the Hollywood Madam, a case that during the last three years has titillated the nation and rekindled the age-old debate about whether prostitution should be considered a crime.

Until this week, Fleiss was facing a three-year sentence on the pandering conviction. She has also been convicted in federal court on potentially more serious charges of money laundering and tax evasion. Sentencing in that case has been set for Sept. 20.

Fleiss, a high school dropout and onetime Gal Friday to the late Beverly Hills madam Elizabeth Adams, was thrust into the spotlight in August 1993 when she was arrested and charged with pandering and possession of cocaine for sale.

The arrest--the fruit of a complex sting operation in which a Beverly Hills detective posed as a Ferrari-driving Hawaiian businessman--shook Hollywood to its core with rumors that her clientele included entertainment industry figures. Later proceedings in federal court would pinpoint a number of johns, who all testified under grants of immunity. Among them were the onetime owner of the Denver Nuggets pro basketball team, Sidney Shlenker; Australian media tycoon Kerry Packer; real estate heir Bob Crow, and actor Charlie Sheen.

The state evidence, however, was limited to the vice sting, which took place in a Beverly Hills hotel suite. Hidden cameras filmed the activities of four women sent by Fleiss to entertain four police officers who posed as Japanese businessmen celebrating a deal.

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