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Ryder Shoplifting Case Steals the Scene

Prosecution of the actress shines an unflattering spotlight on D.A.'s office.

October 07, 2002|JOEL MOWBRAY | Joel Mowbray is a reporter for National Review and contributing editor to nationalreview.com. E-mail: jdmowbra@erols.com.

In the public spectacle masquerading as a shoplifting trial for actress Winona Ryder, the prosecution will complete its 10-month quest to finally bring a celebrity to "justice."

Whether or not Ryder turns out to be an innocent victim of circumstances, the whole mess has already claimed a victim: the public.

Even though cynics scoff at the idea of sympathy for celebrities, most taxpayers should be outraged at the unprecedented expenditure of resources to relentlessly pursue a relatively minor case against someone with no criminal record.

In the three months before a June court date, the office of L.A. County Dist. Atty. Steve Cooley assigned one attorney nothing but the preparation for a preliminary hearing on a shoplifting case.

To put this in perspective, a typical deputy D.A. would deal with 20 to 30 cases a day during the same three-month time span in which a staffer focused solely on a single pretrial hearing.

Some lawyers in the district attorney's office are fed up with what they see as prosecutorial zeal.

One deputy D.A., who asked not to be named, said the aggressive actions are not sitting well with his colleagues: "Most of the lawyers here think this is just a spectacle--and an utterly ridiculous waste of resources for such a petty case."

Yet there were at least eight lawyers and paralegals working full-time in the frenzied few weeks leading up to today's trial--a little less than one attorney for each item allegedly stolen.

The district attorney's office has pursued its case against Ryder with a tenacity typically reserved for murderers. In fact, the prosecution has literally put the Ryder case ahead of murder cases.

The lead deputy D.A. assigned to Ryder's case is trying to postpone a murder trial so she can fulfill her duties prosecuting the shoplifting charge.

Earlier, though, the D.A.'s office had issued a press release stating its "strong objection" to Ryder's attorney requesting a continuance in May so that he could defend a client in a murder case.

In short, the D.A. criticized Ryder's attorney for seeking a continuance in a shoplifting matter to handle a murder trial, while his office sought a continuance in a murder case to try a shoplifting charge.

Meanwhile, the prosecution's publicly aired "case" amounts to almost all smear and no substance. It is entirely possible that Ryder did steal several items from Saks, but the district attorney has waged a public campaign that would minimize the possibility of finding an open-minded jury.

Since her Dec. 12 arrest, Ryder has been portrayed by prosecutors as a serial shoplifter with a drug habit who was caught red-handed on camera. Yet the facts tell a different story.

The cheapest personal shot is the attempt to paint her as a junkie because she had two individual pills of endocet, which even the prosecution concedes is the generic version of Percocet--a drug for which she has a prescription.

Then there are the prosecutors' public hints that they have evidence showing that the actress has a history of shoplifting.

Both of these "prior bad acts," however, boil down to a single witness in each case cryptically stating that maybe Ryder had taken a single item, or was intending to do so.

Ryder has never been arrested or detained, even by private security. In other words, there is no there there.

The most damning lingering rumor is that Ryder can be seen on surveillance tape clipping sensor tags off the Saks merchandise. Truth is, no such evidence exists.

Even though the D.A. admitted at the preliminary hearing in June that the tape had no "gotcha" moment, the coverage of this admission received far less attention than other aspects of the case.

In the end, this case appears to be less about justice than politics.

"This is Hollywood, and the D.A. is putting on a show for the voters," one deputy D.A. said.

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