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VENTURA COUNTY NEWS

Defense Lawyer Held in Contempt of Court

Trial: Attorney fined $500 for gestures and wisecracks. Judge will drop matter for good behavior.

March 28, 2000|TRACY WILSON | TIMES STAFF WRITER

After several warnings, a judge Monday held one of Beverlee Sue Merriman's two lawyers in contempt of court and fined him $500 for rolling his eyes and making wisecracks during her trial.

Superior Court Judge James P. Cloninger scolded veteran criminal defense attorney Richard Hanawalt for a series of indiscretions during a hearing outside the jury's presence.

Those indiscretions began last week when Hanawalt, 67, interrupted the prosecution's opening statement and accused Deputy Dist. Atty. Ron Bamieh of "salivating" over the opposing counsel table.

Later in the week, Cloninger twice admonished Hanawalt, a charismatic lawyer who has practiced law in Ventura for 33 years, for rolling his eyes and raising his hands to demonstrate his displeasure with court rulings.

"This afternoon I sat like the sphinx," Hanawalt grumbled Friday afternoon, just hours after the judge ordered a contempt hearing following what he considered another inappropriate gesture.

During the hearing Monday morning, a defense attorney representing Hanawalt argued that the lawyer's periodic outbursts were unintentional.

Attorney Joe O'Neil suggested that any gestures were largely the result of a decision to have Hanawalt, the more experienced lawyer, play a secondary role to co-counsel Tamara Green in Merriman's perjury and conspiracy trial.

O'Neil said the legal team need not be punished by a contempt finding.

Cloninger disagreed. He said regardless of the reason, Hanawalt's "antics" must be reined because they signal to the jury that his client is not getting a fair trial.

"Mr. Hanawalt states that he won't do this again," the judge said. "I don't know how much stock to put in that."

But given Hanawalt's lengthy legal career, the judge did agree to cut him some slack. Cloninger agreed to drop the matter--and dismiss the fine--if Hanawalt behaves himself throughout the rest of the trial.

On the other hand, the judge said the fine would be increased if Hanawalt steps out of line again.

"I hope," Cloninger concluded, "the fine I have imposed and the talk we have had today will deter this kind of conduct."

Green moved for an immediate mistrial after her partner was held in contempt, arguing that an aura of intimidation now hangs over her and Hanawalt. Her request was denied.

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