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Trial of Steve Woodruff postponed in Riverside

by Mary Shelton Thursday, Apr. 04, 2002 at 6:09 PM

After two days of jury selection, the death penalty trial of a man charged with killing a Riverside Police Department detective came to a grinding halt, as both sides presented new evidence.

The trial of Steve Woodruff came to a halt on March 21 when what began as an evidential hearing quickly turned into a discussion regarding the competency of the defense attorney, by prosecutor Michael Soccio and presiding judge Christian F. Thierbach.

After spending nearly an hour in his chambers, Thierbach agreed to allow attorney Mark Blankenship to continue to represent Woodruff, but ruled that the trial would be postponed until May and the current jury pool excused from service.

The morning began with all parties discussing issues pertaining to evidence, but soon the topic of conversation changed, as did its tone.

Soccio challenged Blankenship's competency in terms of handling a capital murder case. At issue, were the motions that were not filed, including one challenging the racial makeup of the criminal grand jury that handed down the indictments against Woodruff and one for change of trial venue.

Thierbach said that there was no question in his mind that so far the defense of Woodruff has been zealous, and that although he had concerns about Blankenship's handling of the case, he would allow him to continue to represent Woodruff.

"My discretion is limited in this area," he said to Soccio.

When asked by Thierbach if he was satisfied with his defense, Woodruff, sitting in the jury box, said yes.

Blankenship said that his decisions were tactical, and geared towards protecting the rights of his client.

Thierbach said that if the two motions mentioned had been filed by Blankenship, he would have denied them, so he concluded that it could be a strategic decision on Blankenship's part not to pursue those avenues. He did order Blankenship to file a Pitchess motion in order to access the personnel records of Riverside Police Department Detective Doug Jacobs and Ben Baker, by April 12.

"You might find something there," he had said at an earlier hearing, when he had suggested the Pitchess, but now, Blankenship would have no choice in the matter in terms of filing it.

"I believe the Pitchess should be filed in this case," Thierbach said without saying whether or not he would grant it.

Blankenship agreed to file the motion, but in a prior hearing, had expressed reservations about the usefulness of the Pitchess in terms of obtaining accurate records.

"Not much can be accomplished by the Pitchess motion, " he said, "if records immaculately come up clean."

Earlier last week, jury selection began in the capital murder trial, and 183 prospective jurors including 10 African-Americans had been time qualified to return next month for the next round of jury selection. Thierbach had given the jurors a lecture on the history of capital punishment in California, evoking the names of Charles Manson and Sirhan Sirhan when explaining the laws, and then sent them to another courtroom to begin filling out special questionnaires.

Soon, issues were raised about the presentation of evidence by both sides, even as jury selection began.

Early last week, Soccio submitted a motion addressing his concerns about Blankenship's witness list. Witnesses challenged included Attorney General Bill Lockyer, who was to testify about the consent decree, and several expert witnesses, trained in ballistics and psychology.

Last Tuesday, the situation came to a head.

"I'm wondering if we wasted two days of time qualifying," Soccio said.

Thierbach agreed. "We are on the eve of trial, and we have too many outstanding issues here," he said.

Thierbach questioned the relevance of Lockyer's testimony, as he had earlier questioned that of the consent decree signed between Lockyer and the city of Riverside requiring that sweeping reforms be implemented by the police department in the wake of the Tyisha Miller shooting. The reforms mandated by the decree include improving the training and supervision of officers in the Riverside Police Department, as well as the implementation of community policing.

Thierbach said that because the consent decree was signed several months after the shooting of Jacobs, it was absolutely impossible for the consent decree to factor in Woodruff's decision.

"The consent decree is irrelevant," he said.

Blankenship said it was relevant because before it was signed, it was discussed by city officials, and in the media.

"There are other issues in the consent decree that weigh in this case," he said, "It was a public issue when it(the Jacobs shooting) happened."

The inclusion of psychologist Curtis Booraem on the witness list concerned Soccio and Thierbach, because Booraem was scheduled to go on vacation on April 13, and the psychological testing on Woodruff had not been completed. Soccio said that the testing should have been done earlier, and Thierbach agreed. Both questioned how the analysis could be done by Booraem in enough time to provide Soccio the opportunity to consult his own professional psychological expert.

Booraem appeared in court last Thursday, and later began his tests on Woodruff at the jail.

However, while Soccio was raising issues about Blankenship's witnesses inside the courtroom, outside of it, his office had obtained a search warrant to remove more evidence from Woodruff's house where the shooting had occurred.

On March 20, personnel from the D.A.'s office went to the residence to remove a square-shaped piece of paneling from the wall of the house next to the stairway, for ballistics analysis. During the shooting, a bullet had hit the area, where the paneling had now been removed. Blankenship asked why Soccio had waited until now to obtain the evidence.

It was the first sign of interest from the prosecutor's office regarding a bullet that had struck the side of the house and not come out, since the shooting over a year ago.

Last year, during a trial readiness conference, Blankenship had asked Soccio why no photographs of this bullet hole were included in the discovery provided by him and had been told by Soccio that the D.A.'s office had the evidence that it needed. Thierbach had told Blankenship that if he was concerned about it, he should find someone to take photographs of it himself.

Blankenship had hired his own firearms expert, David Butler to testify during the trial, and had placed him on the witness list he submitted to the court.

Soon after, the bullet that had attracted so little attention became the center of it

Earlier, Thierbach had addressed the issue of ballistics in the case, saying that he believed it was not relevant until Blankenship explained that if a bullet had ricocheted, then that could apply to the issue of intent.

Soccio said that it was because the defense had raised the issue of ballistics that this evidence had been collected during the jury selection process.

Both parties said that the bullet in question helps their case.

Jury selection is scheduled to begin again, in May, with the trial expected to last several months.

Woodruff is facing charges including the murder with special circumstances of Jacobs, and the attempted murder of Baker in the shooting that occurred on Jan. 13, 2001, after Baker had been dispatched to respond to a complaint of loud music. The shooting occurred while Baker and Jacobs were handcuffing Woodruff's mother, Parthenia Carr and his brother, Claude Carr.

If Woodruff is convicted of first degree murder with at least one special circumstance, the trial enters into a penalty phase where jurors will decide whether to sentence Woodruff to death or life in prison without parole.

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