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Man Slashes His Lawyer in Court

A defendant standing trial in two killings smuggled a razor blade into the San Fernando courtroom in his mouth, authorities say.

March 15, 2005|Caitlin Liu and Richard Winton | Times Staff Writers

A gang member on trial for two slayings Monday spat a razor blade out of his mouth and used it to slash his attorney's arm in a San Fernando courtroom.

Erik Morales inflicted a 2 1/2-inch gash on Linda Wieder's right bicep, authorities said.

Wieder, a deputy alternate public defender, was treated at Providence Holy Cross Hospital in Mission Hills, where she received five stitches.

"She's doing OK," said Henry Hall, Wieder's supervisor.

Hall said a decision would be made in the next several days on whether Wieder or someone else from his office would continue to represent Morales.

"I'm appalled and disturbed that a defendant was able to attack his attorney," said Los Angeles County Sheriff Lee Baca, who is responsible for courtroom security. "We have to stop this from happening again. You can only make this mistake once.

"The question is, how could the system break down?" Baca said. "I've ordered an investigation, but that isn't good enough."

He said Morales was a "K-10" -- the highest security level defendant possible. Baca said Morales was wearing a "stealth belt," which is designed to secure his wrists to his waist. But during the trial, the belt had been loosened so that the restraints were less visible to jurors and did not infringe on the defendant's civil rights.

"In an effort to give this guy a fair trial, we are basically endangering everyone else in the courtroom -- particularly his lawyer," Baca said. "In the future, I'm going to ask that these restraints remain in place."

Prisoners are searched and passed through metal detectors before they enter a courthouse, said Michael Gennaco, attorney in charge of the Office of Independent Review, which monitors the Sheriff's Department for the county Board of Supervisors.

But Gennaco said the metal detector may not have registered a small razor blade.

Safety and security have become major topics of discussion in courthouses across the United States after last week's shootings inside a Georgia courtroom, in which a defendant on trial for rape grabbed a bailiff's gun and killed three people, including a judge and a court reporter.

Despite budget cuts over the last three years, the Los Angeles County Superior Court has "maintained a very effective level of security," said court spokesman Allan Parachini. "There is no system that is foolproof."

For instance, about a year ago a defendant in a felony case, who was apparently distraught over a guilty verdict, smuggled a razor fragment into a courtroom and cut himself in front of jurors, Parachini said.

"Both what happened in Chicago and what happened in Atlanta are reminders of the vulnerable positions people in courts are in," said William A. MacLaughlin, presiding judge of Los Angeles County Superior Court. "We had something happen that shouldn't have happened.

"It appears that whatever security procedures this defendant went through are not sufficient," he said. "We have to find out what happened."

Before Monday's attack, Wieder had been questioning a witness and Morales seemed to disagree with something, according to authorities.

A bailiff and a security guard immediately subdued Morales, who was on trial for slayings in 1999 and 2000 in the Rampart and Sylmar areas.

Los Angeles County Superior Court Judge Ronald Coen, who is presiding over the trial, immediately ordered the jury to be removed from the room.

Morales, 24, was arrested in 2003 in Oregon after he surrendered to police and allegedly admitted to the killings, said Jane Robison, a spokeswoman for the district attorney's office.

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