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The System: Deals, Deadlines, Few Trials

Defendants' futures hang in the balance of decisions made daily in the courtrooms and hallways of Superior Court in Norwalk.

September 04, 2006|John Balzar | Times Staff Writer

At 8 o'clock in the morning the single-file line grows to 52 people waiting to shuffle past the sheriff's security checkpoint and into the monolithic stone courthouse. More arrive by the minute. Except for an infant too young to know the paralytic effect of dread on one's spirits and the occasional beep-beep of the metal detector, the aging lobby is hushed. Conversations pass in murmurs or, often, through tense glances or the squeeze of hands.

It is a Monday in Los Angeles County Superior Court in Norwalk.

There is nothing particularly special about this Monday. Not for the larger megalopolis anyway. It is special only for those who have an appointment with The System. For them, today could mean the difference between going home or going to prison, between hope or no hope at all.

Ramiro Cisneros arrived at the courthouse half an hour ago. In a windowless, institutional office with just two framed photographs to suggest permanency, he thumbs once more through the day's manila files.

Cisneros embodies one of the oldest tenets of American society: You can be so poor that you have no place to live, so poor that you must wear cast-off clothes and beg for food. But you cannot be so poor that you have to fend for yourself in the face of the law.

Cisneros is a public defender, a 37-year-old native of the Philippines, a graduate of UCLA and Southwestern Law School, a man with his heart in the clouds of idealism and his thoughts down in the daily rough-and-tumble.

When people reach bottom, when they're broke and in trouble, when they've got rap sheets for resumes, Cisneros, or someone like him in the public defender's office, might be the only person in the world who will go to bat for them.

This week, Cisneros has agreed to be our guide to daily life in the courthouse.

The clock reaches 8:30, he gathers a stack of file folders under his arm and nods. "OK, let's go."


Sixth floor, Department S: A compact man with a wrestler's build and a burr haircut, Cisneros lets himself in through a side door.

The prosecution owns the north half of the double-long wood conference table, more or less in the center of the courtroom; Cisneros and other defense attorneys occupy the south.

During the half hour until court convenes at 9, Cisneros reads a fresh probation report on one of his clients. Not much there to help his case.

He talks things over briefly with his counterpart, Paul Minnetian, the deputy district attorney assigned to Department S. Then he nods to the bailiff who produces a key to a door at the far corner of the courtroom and allows Cisneros inside.

There, a small floor space looks into a larger hallway-shaped room. Bars and wire grating separate the two, a membrane between the world of the free and the realm of the caged. This is the courtroom lockup, home to a dozen prisoners this day. Inside, men wearing jail jumpsuits are sprawled on benches and lying on the floor. They were awakened at the Central Jail downtown long before sunrise.

"They are herded like cattle, up at 3 or 4 in the morning," Cisneros says. "Then they have to make decisions that may affect the rest of their lives. You can imagine how stressful it is."

Cisneros calls out the name of his client. A lanky young man with a hawk-like face and a crew cut rises and approaches. Cisneros explains what is going to happen when his case is called. He spoke with this client once before via teleconference.

This is their first face-to-face meeting.

Right now, it is relatively quiet in the lockup. But that's not always the case.

Sometimes two or three attorneys are trying to talk to clients simultaneously while the jailhouse lawyers among the inmates listen and join in. "Don't take that deal!" "Don't trust him!"

Being tough in jail is a survival strategy. The accused has more than one thing to consider. He must, of course, think of the long term, whether to accept a plea bargain -- a few years in prison instead of a trial and a possible sentence many times as long. But he must also weigh how his decision will go down in jail tonight. Will he be branded as weak by admitting his crime?

For the moment, the defendant must quickly size up this public defender in the blue-black suit:

Is he the Man, wearing another face, or is he for me?

Can I hold out for better? Or will I be slapped with worse?

Let's be candid. The men in this lockup, many of them anyway, are not known for their good judgment. Or for their luck, either.

As a condition to sharing background information and their informal impressions of cases, courtroom attorneys asked that the names of victims, defendants and witnesses in those cases not be published. The Times agreed to this request.


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