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Man Jolted by Stun Belt Is Convicted in New Trial

Courts: Repeat felon, who has sued judge who ordered electric shock, may face three-strikes penalty.

August 05, 1999|ERIC MALNIC | TIMES STAFF WRITER

A man who won a new trial on theft charges after being shocked with a stun belt during a court appearance last summer was found guilty again Wednesday by a jury in Long Beach.

Ronnie Charles Hawkins, 48, was convicted of petty theft with a prior conviction for the same offense, a felony that may qualify as his third strike under California law.

Under the three-strikes rule, Hawkins, who has six prior convictions for robbery and attempted robbery dating back to 1978, faces a possible sentence of 25 years to life in prison.

"There is no doubt that Ronnie Hawkins is a career criminal," prosecutor Christopher Frisco said earlier.

The jury continued to deliberate Wednesday on whether the theft of more than $200 worth of over-the-counter painkillers from a market two years ago also constituted felonious burglary.

Last summer, another jury found Hawkins, who was then acting as his own attorney, guilty of petty theft.

Observers said that during a subsequent sentencing hearing, Hawkins angered Municipal Judge Joan Comparet-Cassani by interrupting her repeatedly and by violating her order not to tell jurors that he was HIV-positive and facing a sentence of 25 years to life.

According to a transcript of the hearing, the judge then ordered the bailiff to trigger a 50,000-volt jolt from an electronic security belt with which he had been fitted because of earlier violence in jail.

The judge later said the jolt was justified because Hawkins apparently had been trying to free himself from his handcuffs, and she had feared for her safety.

But one courtroom witness, Deputy Public Defender Jacques Cain, there on another case, called the judge's action outrageous.

Hawkins has filed a $50-million civil rights lawsuit against Comparet-Cassani, the court and the Sheriff's Department. Amnesty International has weighed in with a friend of the court brief supporting the suit.

In the wake of the criticism, federal prison authorities have agreed to review civil rights concerns about use of the belts.

Last October, Long Beach Superior Court Judge Arthur Jean announced that he was "reluctantly and regretfully" granting Hawkins' request for a new trial.

Jean said he granted the motion because Hawkins, while acting as his own attorney, should not have been thrown out of the courtroom during his first trial. Jean said the eight-second jolt did not play a major role in his decision.

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