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GROUND-LEVEL JUSTICE

Wheels Wobble but Justice Rolls On

A persistent witness, a determined lawyer and a sleepy suspect struggle to straighten things out.

September 08, 2006|John Balzar | Times Staff Writer

A fortuneteller's toy sits on the desk in the public defender's office. Shake the pirate's head and lift the eye patch to read the future.

Michelle Paffile gives it a try. "Clear sailing ahead, matey."

About time, she mutters impatiently. It's about time for the justice system to clear things up and deliver some justice to one defendant.

Paffile is a public defender at the Los Angeles County Superior Court in Norwalk. She shares an office with attorney Ramiro Cisneros, who has guided The Times for a week into the courthouse's felony criminal calendar -- the daily process that delivers a good share of the ground-level justice on the southeastern flank of the county, the kind of justice that seldom rates headlines. On this Friday, the spotlight turns from Cisneros to Paffile's case of the man with an eye patch who didn't do it. Or supposedly didn't do it.

It is a case that has dragged on for months with an eyewitness who is ready to clear the man.

*

Back in April, police were summoned to the scene of an attempted burglary in Downey. A man had been seen cutting a screen to gain entry into an apartment, the kind of crime that raises a community's blood pressure and police statistics but gets little attention beyond that. A woman from an upstairs unit rushed out and confronted the man face-to-face in the manner of, just what do you think you're doing? He fled.

Later that day, officers on patrol attempted to question a 25-year-old Compton man in the case.

He ran. Police chased. He was arrested. The man had a prior conviction for grand theft and an outstanding warrant for driving with a suspended license. To top it off, officers reported that the eyewitness identified him. Police had their man.

This, Paffile says, was the first, and crucial, misunderstanding.

The neighbor who witnessed the crime is a native of Greece and speaks with a lingering accent. Officers believed she was identifying the defendant as the suspect. The witness later said that all she meant to do was identify him as someone she had observed in the vicinity, but not the man who cut the screen, not the man whose face she saw close-up.

The witness has told Paffile -- and has been trying to tell others -- that the man she confronted at the scene has a pair of eyes.

The defendant did not. The first time Paffile peered under an eye patch it was on the head of the accused. Underneath was an empty socket. He had lost his eye, he said, as a teenage victim of a drive-by shooting in Long Beach.

In May, a preliminary hearing was held in a Downey satellite court. But that didn't end it.

Investigators heard the witness say that she had become fearful. This was interpreted by prosecutors to mean that the defendant must have had his pals threaten her with harm if she testified.

This, Paffile said, was the second misunderstanding.

What the witness meant was that she was afraid because she could be labeled a false accuser. And let's face it, the defendant was a young man who traveled in the social circles of the rough streets, and he looked the part. Might he be, ah, upset at being locked in jail on someone's mistaken say-so?

The one-eyed man remained in custody and the case was sent to Norwalk. The defendant lacked the money to hire his own attorney, and Paffile was assigned to his case.

At a hearing in June, the one-eyed defendant was granted release from jail on his own recognizance. But with a prior felony conviction, he still faced up to seven years in prison for attempted burglary.

As the case dragged on, Paffile assembled the defendant and the eyewitness in court, where she hoped to secure dismissal. Instead, the district attorney had sought a postponement, infuriating both the public defender and the eyewitness, if not necessarily the laconic defendant.

Finally, the day of reckoning arrived. That was yesterday. But matters got off to a rocky start. The one-eyed man didn't bother to show up for the 9 a.m. hearing. For that matter, the eyewitness who held the key to his fate was also a no-show. A judge prepared a warrant for the arrest of the accused in the event he arrived later than 2 p.m.

Spitting mad, Paffile stabbed the keypad on the telephone, trying to hunt down her client and witness.

*

If stereotyping -- profiling -- runs just beneath the surface in encounters, the courthouse seems to invite it in exaggerated measure. The tall, slender defendant, who bears a resemblance to Kobe Bryant, could have chosen to be on time, to wear a pressed shirt and slacks, to sit attentively in his chair, to humble himself before The Man.

As it was, he arrived on Thursday within five minutes of being arrested. He carried himself with the rolling swagger of the boulevard tough, with the baggy-pants uniform to go along. He sprawled in the courtroom chair. Nobody remotely believed his excuse for being late -- that the police mysteriously sent him to San Bernardino to clear a traffic warrant, except there was no warrant.

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