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TV Review

ABC's 'State v.' Looks Inside Five Murder Trials

June 19, 2002|JOSH FRIEDMAN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Public defender Jerry Hernandez pondered the dozens of potential jurors queried earlier in the day in the matter of State v. Santos, the trial of a 25-year-old tow truck driver charged with second-degree murder.

Hernandez got a "good vibe" from the graying Air Force nurse, and he liked the Boeing engineer with the Wilford Brimley look, but not that woman with the cold stare, the one whose cousin was murdered years ago. Hernandez wanted a blue-collar jury; he feared Ivy League types who might scrunch their noses at his "dirt bag" client and think, "I can't relate to him. I never saw him at any of the Vanderbilts' tea parties."

When the jury began deliberating days later, Hernandez's hunches proved to be almost uncanny--but would they be enough to keep his client out of prison for the next 22 years?

From jury selection through the often-contentious deliberations, ABC's new five-part documentary series "State v." offers a suspenseful look at the criminal justice system. The crisply edited, one-hour show premieres tonight with the Santos trial, and each weekly episode chronicles a different case.

A special order from the Arizona Supreme Court made this real-life "Law & Order" possible, allowing network news crews to track five homicide cases over 18 months with unfettered access to legal strategy sessions, judicial chambers and jury rooms as well as courtrooms. Legal correspondent Cynthia McFadden narrates.

In August 2000, Santos put two bullets into the head of his friend and roommate, Tommy. Smooth, veteran prosecutor John Ditsworth saw the case as a typical "falling out among thieves." Santos and Tommy were stealing from the windshield repair shop where they both worked. After Tommy fingered Santos, the defendant vowed revenge and took it.

Santos claimed self-defense, asserting that Tommy, who was high on speed, pulled a gun on him first. As Santos explained out of the jury's earshot, "It was either him or me, and it wasn't going to be me."

The case may sound mundane, but the presentation and personalities are far from it. While Ditsworth proceeded with cool efficiency, Hernandez worked night and day, nearly cracking under the stress of his third homicide case.

On the eve of the trial, he rehearsed his opening at home in front of a buddy and his bemused dog: "Rudy Santos shot Tommy Hutchinson. Rudy Santos did not murder Tommy Hutchinson." Hernandez also prepared using a "backyard jury" of his friends and neighbors to spot holes in his defense. He knew his client was not "the sharpest knife in the cabinet," but he also knew that Santos' freedom would hinge on his testimony, so Hernandez and a colleague prepped him mercilessly.

When the case went to the jury, a verdict appeared imminent at the end of the first day of deliberations. But in a twist out of the film classic "Twelve Angry Men," the foreman finally spoke up, tempers flared and some jurors eventually rethought their positions.

A documentary should be as involving as it is enlightening, and in the case of "State v.," legal drama doesn't get much better. Who knows: After watching these dedicated pros and ordinary citizens in action, some viewers might even look forward to jury duty.

*

"State v." premieres at 10 tonight on ABC.

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