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An unusual order in Long Beach hate trial

After a woman's car is smashed, judge allows witnesses and victims to testify anonymously.

December 08, 2006|Joe Mozingo | Times Staff Writer

A judge in the Long Beach hate crime trial has issued an unusual order allowing witnesses and victims to testify anonymously and barring defense attorneys from disclosing their names.

Legal experts say the move is extraordinary, though not necessarily unprecedented.

"I've never heard of that," said Loyola Law School professor Laurie Levenson. "To the extent that it's ever happened, I would expect it would have been in a Mafia trial."

Judge Gibson Lee issued the order Wednesday during a closed session with attorneys after a key witness for the prosecution, Kiana Alford, learned that her car had been smashed in front of her home while she was in court testifying.

Levenson said witness intimidation is common, particularly in cases involving gangs, drugs, domestic violence and organized crime, but is usually dealt with in other ways. "The ordinary way to address it is to provide [police] protection of the witness," she said. Alford has been coming to court with a police escort.

Lee said the defendants and their lawyers will be advised of the witnesses' names, but ordered to keep them secret. The attorneys said they plan to argue today that the order violates their clients' constitutional right to confront their accusers.

Levenson, however, said the order may be lawful because the defendants will learn their accusers' identities. But the secrecy order raises 1st Amendment concerns, she said.

Ten black juveniles -- nine girls and a boy -- are charged with beating three white women on Halloween night while shouting derogatory comments about their race. Alford, who is black, spent five days on the witness stand describing the attacks.

Police say witnesses saw three or four gang members back their vehicle into Alford's with such force that it was totaled. At the closed hearing, Deputy Dist. Atty. Andrea Bouas blamed the incident on defense attorneys who had elicited a vague description of the car from Alford during her testimony, they said. Bouas has not commented on the case outside of court.

The defense attorneys argued that gang members already knew her car because, as Bouas told the judge, six of them were seen sitting on it in an earlier act of intimidation.

Alford originally testified under the name Jane Doe. When the defense requested that she identify herself in open court, Bouas argued, "The witness has concern about her safety and the safety of her 1-year-old child." Lee granted the defense's request.

But after the car incident, Lee ordered that the names of Alford and other witnesses be withheld in the future.

One of the defense attorneys, Kathleen Moreno, who has been practicing law for 24 years, said she has never had such a ruling. "We've all been involved in much more dangerous cases than this," she said.

The racially charged allegations in the case are continuing to stir emotions.

Prosecutors say that a crowd of up to 30 black youths -- gathered on a street of well-to-do residents known for their Halloween festivities -- attacked the three victims, ages 21, 19 and 19, because they were white. The women were stomped, punched, struck with a skateboard and beaten to the ground. The 21-year-old suffered multiple fractures to her face, her attorney said.

Talk radio hosts have drummed up a steady stream of outrage over the incident and its aftermath. Many people initially decried what they saw as law enforcement's tepid response to a black-on-white hate crime.

The defendants' families, meanwhile, say their children were not involved in the beatings and have been unfairly swept up in the hysteria. The nine girls and one boy have been held in Juvenile Hall since Halloween, and come to court shackled together.

In a closed hearing Thursday, the lawyers made an unsuccessful plea for the judge to release the minors to their families.

None have gang affiliations or criminal records, the attorneys said, adding that they have strong families who are mortified by the charges. One girl is in state college on a track scholarship, and several others are high school track stars, including a girl who represented the United States at an event in China this summer.

All 10, ages 12 to 17, face three felony counts of assault with intent to cause great bodily harm. Eight face hate crime enhancements.

They were arrested the night of the attack in cars that were seen leaving the scene.

Defense attorneys note that two 15-year-old boys were arrested in the case the following week and will be tried later. One was never held in detention; police declined to comment. The other was released to his family Thursday after prosecutors said they would not be ready to start trial for weeks.

"It's blatantly and patently unfair to treat these 10 kids different than the other two kids," said Deputy Public Defender Stephanie Sauter.

Testimony is expected to continue today. The trial could last several weeks, attorneys said.

joe.mozingo@latimes.com

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