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Relatives of Grim Sleeper's victims express the pain of delays

Relatives of the Grim Sleeper's victims tell a judge of the pain they feel over continuing delays

Pain from a pinched nerve shot through Diana Ware's right leg as she hobbled to her truck. It was 6 a.m. — time for another trek to downtown Los Angeles hoping for justice.

The 76-year-old drove through thick morning fog from her home in West Covina to a nearby bus stop, parked and boarded the Silver Streak bus for the nearly hourlong trip to the courthouse where the man accused of killing her stepdaughter would once again appear before a judge.

After the bus ride came a short walk up a hill that Ware has nicknamed "the torture." She arrived at the concrete and glass building on Temple Street.

"Boy, oh boy, oh boy," she said, sighing. "Here we go again."

She started making this trip more than four years ago, when Los Angeles County prosecutors charged Lonnie Franklin Jr. with killing Barbara Ware and nine other women, as well as trying to kill another.

Diana Ware — like other relatives of victims killed by the so-called Grim Sleeper — has faithfully attended court hearings, even as the case has dragged on. She is getting tired of the wait, and last week she got the chance to tell a judge.

"The case has stalled," Ware said, leaning onto a lectern for support. "It is very frustrating."

In a justice system intended to protect the rights of defendants and prevent wrongful convictions, criminal cases often stretch on for years before a resolution, creating an agonizing delay for victims and their families. The wait often takes even longer in murder cases in which lawyers defend clients facing the possibility of life behind bars or execution.

In an attempt to speed up the process, some victims' relatives are coming forward to tell judges about the toll that the delays take on their lives. They are aided by prosecutors who cite a 2008 amendment to California's Constitution, also known as Marsy's Law, to argue that the right to a speedy trial belongs not just to the accused but also to victims and their families.

Asking for a hearing in which victims can express their frustrations with the pace of legal proceedings can boost their faith in the criminal justice system and help them psychologically, said Meg Garvin, who helped draft Marsy's Law and is director of the National Crime Victim Law Institute in Portland, Ore.

"Trauma symptoms can be improved when victims are heard," she said, "when the system actually listens to them."

Although the hearings are relatively uncommon, prosecutors in Orange County asked for one in 2013 so family members of eight victims killed at a Seal Beach salon could tell a judge about their frustrations with how long the process was taking. The judge expressed sympathy but told the relatives that the case was too complex to be rushed. The defendant, Scott Dekraai, later pleaded guilty and now faces a trial to determine whether he should be given the death penalty.

In Los Angeles County, victims' relatives in the case of five people who were killed in the Antelope Valley in 2008 recently complained to a judge about the slow pace of proceedings. Jae Shim was charged with the murders of his ex-wife, her boyfriend, her two children and another relative, who were killed with a samurai sword and a baseball bat. He was also accused of burning down the house where the killings took place to cover up the murder scene.

Shim, one of two defendants in the case, pleaded guilty last week. His attorney, Dan Kuperberg, said the emotional hearing in which victims' family members pleaded with a judge to speed up the process helped nudge his client to take a deal.

"Their pain was obvious and evident," Kuperberg said. "We knew people were suffering, but hearing it expressed put a different light on it."

Deputy Dist. Atty. Beth Silverman, who is prosecuting the Shim and Franklin cases, said such hearings give victims and their families a chance to talk on the record about how the crime has affected their lives.

"In the system we tend to lose sight of them," she said. "It's pitiful."

For Ware, the recent hearing in Franklin's case gave her an opportunity to make herself heard about a crime that has followed her for nearly three decades.

Her stepdaughter's body was found in an alley not far from Franklin's home Jan.10, 1987 — two days after she turned 23. She was shot in the chest.

For more than two decades, the murder went unsolved. Ware and her husband moved from Los Angeles in an effort to distance themselves from the killing. Ware's husband died in 2002, never knowing that his daughter — the one with his same shade of light brown eyes — was shot by a suspected serial killer.

The families of other victims waited too, until 2010, when a sweep of state offender records turned up an individual with a partial DNA match to genetic evidence from the crimes.

Police eventually focused on the individual's father, Franklin, and followed him to a restaurant in Buena Park, where they collected an unfinished slice of pizza and used it to analyze his DNA. It matched the genetic profile linked to several of the victims, including Ware's daughter, prosecutors said.

Police arrested Franklin that July and he was charged with 10 counts of murder and one count of attempted murder, although investigators believe he is responsible for more killings.

Within months, prosecutors had concerns about the pace of the case and asked to have a grand jury convened to avoid a drawn-out preliminary hearing process. The indictment was issued March 23, 2011.

By August 2013, family members had become so frustrated by delays that they filed letters with the court lodging their concerns. But that did little to speed the process.

In January, prosecutors filed a motion asking for a Marsy's Law hearing.

The case has taken so long to make it to trial, the motion said, that many of the coroners who performed autopsies on the victims have retired — requiring another medical examiner to testify. And the mothers of two victims, Mary Lowe and Bernita Sparks, have died since charges were filed.

"It would be an immeasurable miscarriage of justice," the motion said, "if any more of these family members were unable to see this defendant brought to trial."

Ware said she can't help but worry about the passage of time.

"I'm 76," she said. "I'm under God's grace."

At the hearing earlier this month, Ware was the first of more than a dozen people, including victims' relatives, and friends, and a surviving victim — to address Los Angeles County Superior Court Judge Kathleen Kennedy.

Some raised their voices to a yell. Others spoke through tears. They talked about anxiety and nightmares, about how they wanted answers and about how none of this was fair. One victim's father told the judge that losing a daughter is like losing a limb — you see and feel the loss every day. Another victim's sister begged the judge to consider her feelings. Many of them blamed Franklin's lawyers for the delays.

One of Franklin's attorneys, Seymour Amster, responded that he too was eager to get the case to trial, but that having multiple, decades-old crime scenes inevitably draws out the process and that he doesn't want to rush his experts.

It makes sense to spend the time now to get everything right, Amster said outside court, saying that that's the best way to prevent a longer appeal process later on.

"The rush is actually causing the risk of more delay," he said.

During the hearing, Kennedy reminded the victims' families that the schedule is always delayed in death penalty cases and that Franklin is innocent until proven guilty.

"It is a difficult balancing that the court is required to do," Kennedy said. "I hope you understand that your feelings … do matter."

As Kennedy mentioned a potential trial date, Ware's posture stiffened and she rested her hand over a cross-shaped pendant dangling from her neck. Jury selection, the judge said, would start June 30.

Ware smiled slightly. It's how she hoped the hearing would end, but she couldn't help but think back to the last two proposed trial dates that came and went.

As Ware walked out of the courthouse and started back down the hill, she spoke softly, as if to herself: "Maybe this time will be it."

marisa.gerber@latimes.com

Twitter: @marisagerber

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