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Ex-Studio Boss on Ryder Jury

Peter Guber, who ran Sony when it produced three of her movies, is among 12 selected for the panel. The actress is accused of shoplifting.

October 26, 2002|Carla Hall | Times Staff Writer

A jury of six men and six women was selected Friday in the Beverly Hills shoplifting trial of actress Winona Ryder, including one well-known Hollywood peer: the former chief of a giant studio that oversaw the production of three of Ryder's best-known films.

Peter Guber, who ran Sony Pictures Entertainment from 1989 to 1994 -- when it comprised both Columbia Pictures and Tri-Star -- was not the only Hollywood connection impaneled with the approval of county prosecutors and the defense. Also on the jury are a programming development executive for an entertainment company and the husband of a Disney Co. executive.

At one point, as two dozen potential jurors were questioned, so many had entertainment industry connections that Superior Court Judge Elden Fox deadpanned, "I think we have all the studios represented."

The jury pool members, whether they worked for Sony or Sizzler, all made it clear that they were familiar with Ryder the actress and Ryder the alleged felon.

When asked by the judge whether there was anyone who did not know of Ryder, no one raised a hand. Similarly, everyone had at least heard of the matter bringing Ryder to court, where she is being tried on charges of grand theft, burglary and vandalism stemming from her arrest in the alleged shoplifting of about $6,000 worth of merchandise from Saks Fifth Avenue in Beverly Hills.

Deputy Dist. Atty. Ann Rundle and defense attorney Mark Geragos -- as well as the judge -- asked a variety of questions to assess whether potential jurors could deliberate impartially.

But the first order of business was asking them whether they had personal or professional ties to the entertainment business in general and Ryder in particular.

Guber, dressed in a gray suit and tie, raised his hand and volunteered, "I was the chairman of Sony when one of the companies under our control -- she made a picture for them."

In fact, Guber ran Sony when Ryder was making three big-budget movies for Columbia Pictures -- "Bram Stoker's Dracula" in 1992; "The Age of Innocence," in 1993, which earned her an Oscar nomination; and "Little Women," which was in production during Guber's tenure but was released in late 1994, shortly after his departure.

As head of Sony, Guber had ultimate authority over all productions at Columbia.

Asked by the judge whether he felt he could render a fair and impartial verdict, Guber said he could.

A day earlier, Guber, on an elevator in the Beverly Hills courthouse, had said casually out loud, "I have about as much chance of getting on this jury as the man in the moon. I only made three pictures with the lady."

Neither Rundle nor Geragos probed Guber for the details of his ties to Ryder. Instead, both pointed their questions toward whether Guber, 60, who now runs Mandalay Entertainment, would feel comfortable sitting in judgment of Ryder.

"Would there be any repercussions for you?" Rundle asked.

"Me?" Guber asked. "No."

"Mr. Guber, you're not afraid of working in this town again after sitting on this jury?" asked Geragos to laughter from the courtroom. Guber indicated he was not afraid.

Although both sides could have peremptorily struck Guber from the jury, neither did.

Other jurors include a teacher, a UCLA graduate student, a woman who works at a fast-food restaurant, an aerospace engineer, a woman who works for a mortgage company and an obstetrician-gynecologist.

The judge also heard a request from Susan Seager, an attorney representing the Los Angeles Times and Associated Press, for transcripts of proceedings that took place in a closed court session Thursday.

Fox declined to provide them, saying they were pretrial motions on evidence that might not be introduced during the trial.

"It's not the court's intention to prevent the public from knowing evidence related to this trial," the judge said. "It is the court's intention to prevent the public and prospective jurors from knowing evidence that will not be part of this trial."

Seager said outside of court, "He basically thinks the right to public access only extends to the trial itself and not pretrial proceedings, and that is just not correct. The U.S. Supreme Court has made it clear that pretrial proceedings are just as open as trial proceedings."

The closed hearing involved at least four motions dealing with the type of evidence that could be entered at trial.

Ryder appeared in court wearing a white sheath under a buttoned-up dusky blue long coat jacket with pink high-heeled mules. She wrote copiously on a yellow legal pad. During the many sidebars that prospective jurors asked for -- so they could answer questions from the judge in private -- she cast occasional polite glances at the men and women who might decide her fate. The prospective jurors, for their parts, proved excellent poker players, betraying no feelings of being star-struck.

When the prosecutor asked one juror whether she would ever decide that the prosecutor had proved her case but would not convict because Ryder had been subjected to so much publicity, the juror shook her head, no. "I think when someone has a celebrity status, that's part of what goes along with it," she said.

In addition to the usual judicial admonitions against discussing the case or reading about it, the judge added one more: no shopping at Saks for the duration of the trial. "I'm sure they won't appreciate that, but I think you can get along for five to seven days," Fox said.

*

Times staff writer Mimi Avins contributed to this story.

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