A hearing over a financial settlement reached between a woman seen on video being beaten by a CHP officer and the woman's attorney devolved into an heated debate Wednesday between the judge and members of the public.
Encouraged to attend the hearing by a Facebook post from a supporter of attorney Caree Harper, about half a dozen people showed up in Judge Otis Wright II's courtroom Wednesday afternoon and asked him to explain why he had ordered the attorney jailed for two days after finding her in contempt of court.
Wright, who presided over the civil rights lawsuit between Harper's client, Marlene Pinnock, and the California Highway Patrol, bristled at the charge he had unfairly grilled Harper this month when he asked how she and her client reached a deal that netted Harper more than $600,000 of Pinnock's $1.5-million settlement.
In a case that gained national attention last summer, Pinnock was seen being punched repeatedly in the face while on her back by then-CHP Officer Daniel Andrew before she was arrested on the 10 Freeway in Los Angeles.
Andrew later resigned from the force as part of a settlement but hasn't been charged criminally. Pinnock's civil rights lawsuit was settled less than three months after her arrest.
Wright said Harper's fee, given how fast the case was settled and the small amount of necessary court work, was "unconscionable."
The judge said because Pinnock's settlement was put in a special trust with a conservator, it made him question whether she fully understood the agreement she signed with Harper. Pinnock suffers from schizophrenia, her family said.
"Ms. Pinnock, in my opinion, has been exploited," Wright said.
But in an email to The Times on Wednesday, Harper disagreed.
She said Wright doesn't know the difference "between 'mental illness' and 'mental incompetence.'"
Wright held Harper in contempt of court at the last hearing when he concluded she was refusing to answer questions about her relationship with Pinnock without a lawyer present.
"I put on the record, due to the fact the way the court was questioning me that I wanted a lawyer present," Harper said after her release from custody. "I had no idea I was going to be questioned on that matter."
Harper answered questions to Wright's satisfaction two days later and was released. She was ordered to show Wright proof she'd given Pinnock money she was owed and submitted it prior to Wednesday's hearing.
Harper was not in the courtroom for the afternoon debate between her supporters and the judge.
Pinnock's aunt, Brenda Hall-Woods, said Harper put her niece in an apartment and cared for her and that's how she earned her money. Pinnock previously was homeless.
Pinnock's daughter, Maisha Allums, meanwhile, claimed Harper cut out the family as she negotiated the settlement.