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The People of California v Parthenia Carr: jury selection is like poker....

by Mary Shelton Sunday, Sep. 09, 2001 at 5:54 PM
chicalocaside@yahoo.com

As the first trial stemming from the shooting of a Riverside Police Department detective began with jury selection, one had to ask oneself, was this the first step of a criminal trial or a high stakes poker game?

errorThe trial for me, opened with the deputy challenging my right as a journalist (in-training) to attend jury selection, in the case of The State of California v Parthenia Carr. I had been sitting in the back of the empty courtroom, and the deputy, a 23-year-old Hispanic man, told me no media was allowed to sit in the courtroom during jury selection because the room would be too packed with jurors. When I cited the court case on jury access to media, presiding Judge Paul Zellerbach told me that I was in error, and should not cite case law without reading it. Then he said, the deputy runs my courtroom. Which meant that all judicial decisions regarding first amendment issues were to be left to a representative of a law enforcement agency, without any training in regards to upholding constitutional law, but with plenty of training to restrict access to those same principles. Not to mention that when Zellerbach had run for the judges spot in March 2000, he had prided himself as being the law enforcements choice, and posted such on his campaign signs.

While Zellerbach had been talking to his deputy, I looked around and counted the seats in the courtroom, and there were 61 chairs in the audience. Then, there were also 14 in the jury box. for the 12 jurors and two alternates. Zellerbach had told both attorneys on the case that there would be only 50 jurors in the panel. Which opened up the question as to whether or not the room would be, as Zellerbach and his deputy had said, too crowded for the media. With myself, and the entire jury pool in the courtroom, 11 seats would still remain for other people to occupy. I had to leave until the deputy and his judge had decided that enough of the seats had been vacated, for media to be allowed to do its job. Defense Attorney Mark Blankenship did say to the judge, What are you going to do, arrest her?

I left, and went to school to a staff meeting of the community college newspaper, and my advisor told me to contact several individuals including the head of the California First Amendment Coalition. Terry Francke emailed me back, and told me that it appeared the judges actions were unconstitutional, and he was concerned about the judge handing off first amendment issues to be decided by the bailiff.

Jury selection, for a while, went on without the participation of the media. The local newspaper had more pressing news stories to cover, and I was banned. I decided a couple hours later, to just walk in the courtroom, and if I got arrested, I got arrested for trying to exercise my constitutional rights. Wouldnt be the first time. The courtroom was mostly empty, as the judge had eliminated many jurors on the time qualified trial that would last longer than a business week. In the jury box, sat 13 white jurors and one African-American woman. One prospective juror was a pastor who worked for the Riverside County Sheriffs Department counseling bereaved officers after shootings. Blankenship tried to get him removed for cause, regarding implied bias. The judge said, I dont think hes impartial.

Parthenia Carr was on trial for the alleged commission of 415(disturbing the peace) and 148(resisting arrest) stemming from an incident involving a loud radio last Jan. 13 that resulted in the fatal shooting of Riverside Police Department Detective Doug Jacobs. According to the police, she had played her music too loud. A neighbor called the police, and officer Ben Baker was dispatched to the scene. He asked her to turn her radio off, she refused and he placed her under arrest. Her son, Claude Carr then came out to intervene. Another officer, Jacobs, arrived and both officers each tried to place one individual under arrest. During that process, Steve Woodruff came out of the house and fired a gun at them, killing Jacobs with a shot to the head.

That was the official version of the events that had been circulated, mainly in the daily newspaper. Just like when Tyisha Miller was killed by four officers in December 1998, and the polices third version of that story was circulated as fact, in over 100 news stories. Real life, however often proves to be much more complicated than a sound byte, and that would prove to be the case here, many felt, even if most people in Riverside did not want to be caught admitting it.

Given that the trial dealt with events leading up to the death of an officer, the judges decision not to excuse a juror who counseled officers after similar shootings raised a couple eyebrows. Reminiscent of one of the trials involving the 91 freeway demonstration where two jurors had admitted that they had been caught in the traffic jam resulting from that protest and had been angered by it. Those two men plus a bowling friend of the president of the Riverside Police Department Police Officers Association had to be kicked off by the defense.

Jury selection is often like poker, at least when the Riverside County District Attorneys office is attempting to bluff its way through the process. The tactic of nearly every prosecutor in a trial is to put on a straight face, pretend to approve of the panel, and then wait until the defense attorney has used up all his challenges. Then they apparently decide they dont like the jurors after all, and start kicking them off, thus restructuring its composition without imput from the defense. Clever the first time they try it. Problem is, they all exercise this strategy, and that hurt prosecutor John Aki, when he tried it during this trial.

Aki, born in Hawaii and educated by southern California institutions including Southwestern School of Law, did just that, until Blankenship nearly exhausted his challenges. Aki said he accepted the panel, but then Blankenship decided enough was enough apparently, and said he approved of it too! Akis face fell, and his eyes grew wide, because he did not like the panel at all. His bluff had been called, and now he was stuck. Except for some unexpected assistance from former prosecutor Zellerbach, who decided to help him out.

Juror number #12 was a hardship case. A vocational nurse who worked until the wee hours by night, and a community college student by day. From the beginning, she had been honest about her hardship involving her enrollment in a class which if she had not attended it the first day, she would have to postpone her dreams of becoming a registered nurse for one year. Earlier, the judge had pooh-pooed her story, as a sob story. Now, suddenly her situation became a crisis of epic proportions. Her dreams could NOT be deferred. She would be excused one way or the other, Zellerbach told the two attorneys. When I entered, juror #12 was in tears, saying she felt she was the one on trial. Finally, she was excused. The alternates were simply the only two jurors remaining, and trial was ready to begin.

It wasnt the first time, I had seen a superior court criminal judge assist a prosecutor, as there have been many instances of judges telling the prosecutors what to do, whether its during arraignments, pre-lim hearings, motion hearings or simply a trial readiness conference. Its a rarity when a judge will even look at the defense attorney, let alone give him or her strategic advice. But it was not going to be the only odd occurance in a highly charged trial.

(to be continued)
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