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California and the West | MIKE DOWNEY

Yakety-Yak in the Worst Degree at McDougal Trial

October 30, 1998|MIKE DOWNEY

Leslie W. Light, the haranguing judge of Santa Monica, began the latest proceedings at the trial of accused embezzler Susan McDougal by telling McDougal's sister to sit down and shut up.

(In so many words.)

A few minutes later, Light gave a similar tongue-lashing to the prolix McDougal, who even while sitting on a witness stand doesn't know when to shut up.

McDougal is a woman who, if you ask her what time it is, will probably tell you how to build a clock.

"There is no cure for it," Light said of the defendant's inability to end a sentence.

Although he did mention one.

"Maybe we could rig up the witness chair with an electrical charge," he actually joked Thursday morning, before adding that in the wake of recent events, he wasn't eager to do so.

Nobody at this wild little trial seems to know when to shut up, including the judge.

*

Day after day, a trial that should have been over by the first week of October drones on and on, with no end in sight.

McDougal--the former Clinton family friend and Whitewater figure who went to jail because there was something she wouldn't talk about-- is charged with embezzling an estimated $150,000 from a former employer, Nancy Mehta, wife of symphony conductor Zubin Mehta.

Nobody in court is playing to the TV cameras. There are no TV cameras.

There are enough histrionics, though, for a made-for-TV murder movie. All this case needs is Donna Mills or Lindsay Wagner being cross-examined by a handsome district attorney while a judge threatens to "clear the courtroom if there's one more outburst."

A spectator in Santa Monica Superior Court had better mind his or her Ps and Qs, because Judge Light is on the warpath.

And the word "warpath" is used deliberately here, since at one point Light said he wanted someone in court to be as still as "a wooden Indian."

By the time he finished with Paula Cochrane, the defendant's sister, the judge was overruling his own metaphor.

Sit in court "like a statue or a robot," he instructed McDougal's sister in the gallery, "and we won't get into anything as politically incorrect [as a wooden Indian], although I don't see it as politically incorrect."

At various junctures in this trial, the judge has barked at the attorneys. He has called himself "a curmudgeon" and acknowledged having a loud voice. He also barked at a witness, leading one of the attorneys to call the judge "an equal-opportunity curmudgeon."

The defendant has heard this bark more than once.

Once, when McDougal moved her chair to better see a witness, the judge came down from the bench and tried her seat for himself.

Light, 68, runs a tight ship. Or perhaps this is not one of the metaphors he'd use, inasmuch as he went to West Point.

He spent 1965-68 as an actor on a TV show called "Divorce Court," so maybe that's why his manner seems so overly dramatic.

Not every judge announces that he's going to make sure nothing improper leaks out to the jury by any means, including "by Star Trek teletransporter."

Light nearly beamed McDougal's sister right out onto the street after Wednesday's session, because he caught her in court giving Susan a thumbs-up.

It was the second time Cochrane had behaved inappropriately, having "stormed out of court" once before, the judge said.

Giving her the benefit of the doubt, Light held off banishing Cochrane or fining her for contempt of court, both of which he considered. Instead, he warned her: "Three strikes and you're out."

"Yes, sir," she replied.

"Is that clear?"

"Yes, your Honor."

Then she sat down, quiet as a wooden . . . uh, robot.

*

Normally in legal matters, a prosecuting attorney attempts to get a defendant to talk. In this case, the prosecutor is attempting to get Susan McDougal to quit talking.

Calling her "non-responsive," Jeff Semow pleaded with the judge Thursday to make the witness stop turning answers into anecdotes.

McDougal tried everything but Scotch tape across her lips. She cracked up laughing once at the court reporter, whose fingers must be blistered by now.

"Can I say. . . ? Can I say. . . ?" McDougal asked at one point, trying to get in one last word.

But she clammed up, just in case the judge wasn't joking about that electrical charge.

Mike Downey's column appears Sundays, Wednesdays and Fridays. Write to him at Times Mirror Square, Los Angeles 90053, or e-mail mike.downey@latimes.com

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