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GROUND-LEVEL JUSTICE

When the Defense Wins a Tough Case, It's Sweet

It's whipped-cream time when a public defender clinches a not- guilty verdict in a retrial with the help of long-ignored evidence.

September 06, 2006|John Balzar | Times Staff Writer

The public defenders at the Norwalk courthouse begin the day with pancakes and strawberries.

Attorney Michelle Paffile won a not guilty verdict in a trial, and by tradition she must bring treats for the 14 other public defenders and the staff assigned to this suburban courthouse in southeast Los Angeles County. This was an especially sweet victory for the young attorney, and she's gone all out on this recent Wednesday with mounds of cakes and berries and whipped cream.

Paffile, 31, a five-year veteran of the public defender's staff, shares an office with attorney Ramiro Cisneros, who has been serving as the newspaper's courthouse guide through a week of ground-level justice -- the kind that almost never makes the headlines.

She is eager to tell the story, and Cisneros encourages a visitor to listen because it is one of those unsettling cases that arises in an instant and drags on for years.

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Her account: Four years ago, a young Alta Loma man in a silver Ford Expedition drove up the Washington Boulevard onramp to the 605 Freeway, straight into a colossal traffic jam. A big rig was disabled in the No. 4 lane, and cars were slowed to a creep.

Perhaps the prudent reaction would have been for the man to dial up some soothing music on the stereo, relax, chat with his friend who was a passenger and wait it out. But he was not prudent. He drove onto the shoulder to gain ground and then swung out to merge into traffic, where tempers were rising. He reached the No. 3 lane and then impatiently tried to find space to squeeze into the No. 2. He clipped the mirror of a delivery truck. A California Highway Patrol officer, on foot, witnessed the event. He attempted to stop traffic and signaled for the SUV driver to pull over. The man did not.

At the next offramp, the attorney continued, her client exited to square things with the driver of the delivery truck. Before that could happen, the officer pursued him, reporting that the SUV driver had tried to run him down. Marijuana was found in the SUV. The driver was arrested and charged with assaulting a police officer, a felony, as well as drug possession and evading arrest.

While in the back seat of the patrol car, a hidden microphone recorded the driver's hysteria. Over and over again he tells his friend, also in custody, that he never saw the officer and didn't try to run him down. And the marijuana? The passenger confesses, oops, it was his.

As it happens, the two young men were partners in a record business. They hired an attorney. Over time, the passenger settled the drug offense. The driver went to trial and was convicted and sentenced to jail.

Their attorney never entered the tape recording into evidence.

The driver set an appeal in motion. Eventually, an appellate court ordered a new trial on grounds that one attorney is not supposed to represent two clients unless both sign a waiver.

During the interval, the driver lost his house, his business and his life savings. He could not afford a private attorney any more. He was able to qualify for a public defender.

The retrial lasted 2 1/2 days. By and large, the district attorney did not dispute Paffile's recounting of the facts of the case -- except for the most important of them. The prosecutor argued that the driver had seen, and made eye contact, with the CHP officer and gunned his engine in reply, putting the officer in jeopardy.

Paffile had the tape recording played for the jury.

Deliberations lasted 45 minutes. Not guilty. Pancakes and strawberries.

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Incorporated in 1957, Norwalk is one of those postwar boomtown suburbs distinguished from the multitude of surrounding stucco suburbs only by the lines on a map. The writer D.J. Waldie calls this southeast portion of the basin "The Great Flat," defined as the floodplain surrounding the Los Angeles and San Gabriel rivers.

For those who regard Southern California by its grandiose stereotypes, the terrain here is also the great unknown -- home to a healthy share of the region's remaining middle class, to its rising working class, to its growing immigrant class and, of course, to its share of crime.

The everyday cities and unsung culture of this landscape define the reach of the Los Angeles County Superior Court in Norwalk: Bellflower, Whittier, Downey. These are neither the roughest nor the most privileged communities in our midst and thus perhaps the easiest to overlook.

"The combination of things -- square mile after square mile of tract housing, the working class, the uniform grid of streets -- all of it equals something terribly diminished in the minds of some," says Waldie, who lives in adjacent Lakewood. "I choose to celebrate the flats rather than abandon them."

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Cisneros retrieves a message on his office phone. He replays it on the speaker. The pleading, sweet, desperate voice of a young woman is heard. Her father is in jail. Will Cisneros help?

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