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GROUND-LEVEL JUSTICE

In Court, Players Are Immersed in Issues of Right and Wrong

Between the good and evil people who land in The System are shades of gray. The lawyers size them up.

September 07, 2006|John Balzar | Times Staff Writer

"There are three classes of criminal defendants." Deputy Dist. Atty. Paul Minnetian interrupts preparations for this day's criminal calendar in Los Angeles County Superior Court in Norwalk to talk about the view from his side of the counsel table.

"One: Otherwise good people who make a mistake. Like the soccer mom who embezzles from the team.

"Two: The repeat offenders who don't do anything heinous. Dope. Nonviolent crimes. You regard them on a sliding scale. The more often they come back, the harder you've got to hit them.

"Three: Evil people.

"Finally, you have the mentally ill who are scattered in all these categories."

For a week, The Times has been following the ground-level workings of the felony-only courthouse in Norwalk. Minnetian, 41, a 15-year veteran of the district attorney's staff, runs the daily calendar in Department S -- a realm apart from the theatrical legal dramas that make headlines. In this courtroom and others like it throughout the county, the running of the calendar is the process where a large share of daily justice gets dispensed.

Many people in positions of power in the criminal justice system, perhaps all of them, have a measure of judge and jury in their hearts. How could they not? They are humans immersed in the timeless struggles of right and wrong, of wickedness and virtue, of suffering and hope, of certainty and doubt. They see, if not everything, then at least plenty from here on the floor of the courtroom.

For the prosecutor, in particular, sizing up a defendant shapes the case to follow.

The district attorney's office decides whom to charge among those arrested by police. From what can be a broad range of options, the office decides the specific charges, and how hard to push. Along the way, a deputy like Minnetian is also entrusted to broker the plea deals that are supposed to dispense fair punishment while keeping the court calendar moving.

Plea bargains follow a formula according to the crime and the defendant's prior record. But within that range, prosecutors like Minnetian have discretion. He might, he says, put his "thumb on the scale" on behalf of a baby-faced defendant who doesn't have a long record. "They'd eat him alive in the lockup." But his sympathy is easily exhausted. A repeat offender might typically beg for mercy for the sake of a struggling family, perhaps a sick child or a disabled spouse. "I have to say to myself, 'If he doesn't care about his family, why should I?' " He knows it sounds harsh. It's also the truth.

*

For most of this week, and again now, the newspaper's guide to the running of the daily calendar has been Ramiro Cisneros, a public servant with the opposite job. Cisneros is a deputy public defender, one of 15 assigned to Norwalk.

At any given time, he has a caseload of 25 or so defendants, some of them perhaps innocent, some of them surely guilty, all of them too poor to hire a private lawyer. Duty demands that Cisneros keep his judgments to himself because no less an authority than the Constitution promises that no one will have to face The System unrepresented.

*

Extortion. Threatening to rape the victim's wife. A prior record as a criminal.

This is judgment day for Cisneros' first client.

The case went to trial earlier in a courtroom down the hall. An eight-count charge of armed robbery of a small business, extortion, criminal threat and resisting arrest was reduced to six counts by Cisneros' earlier motions. Another count was dismissed. The jury returned a mixed verdict. The 22-year-old Lakewood man was cleared on two counts of robbery, the most serious charges. He was convicted on a single count of extortion, one count of criminal threat and a misdemeanor charge of resisting arrest.

Wearing handcuffs and a County Jail jumpsuit, he stands expressionless before the judge on this recent Thursday. If convicted of the original charges, he could have been incarcerated for up to 14 years and eight months. Now, he is facing less than half that, a maximum of six years and eight months.

The defendant shows not a flicker of emotion when the judge reads a summary of the case in the deadpan voice of a newscaster. He refers to the man only in the detached third person: "The court considers him a danger to others." Sentence: five years and eight months in prison.

Cisneros gives the man what will probably be his last gentle pat on the back until 2012. Depending on transportation schedules, the defendant will be moved from jail to prison in two to eight weeks.

Sometimes the justice system lives up to its promise of delivering punishment to fit the crime. "Sometimes, sometimes it does," Cisneros says later in a reflective moment. "But sometimes it does not.

"With three strikes, a minor crime can get you 25 years to life. That doesn't fit the crime. Other than that, most of the time it does."

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