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‘Twilight’ Prosecutors Do Battle : 2 Attorneys Take Stand and Debate Truthfulness of a Key Witness

Times Staff Writer

A dispute between the former and the current prosecutor in the “Twilight Zone” manslaughter case was played out in court Thursday when both attorneys took the stand and gave dramatically different accounts concerning the truthfulness of a key prosecution witness.

The current prosecutor, Deputy Dist. Atty. Lea Purwin D’Agostino, also implied that someone in the district attorney’s office may have attempted to sabotage her preparation for the trial.

“I figured someone was probably trying to withhold information from me so I would not be adequately prepared,” D’Agostino testified, while answering questions from defense attorneys. ". . . Possibly I was not the recipient of all the information that I should have been when the (case) file was turned over to me.”

The normally effusive D’Agostino refused to comment after the session--at which jurors were not present--on whether her accusation was directed at the former prosecutor, Deputy Dist. Atty. Gary P. Kesselman. Kesselman, who asked to withdraw from the case in late 1985 for personal reasons, also refused comment.

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The highly unusual clash arose when defense attorney James F. Neal received permission from Los Angeles Superior Court Judge Roger W. Boren to ask Kesselman a handful of questions concerning the testimony of the first witness called in the case, production secretary Donna Schuman.

In two days on the stand ending Monday, Schuman testified that she had told Kesselman three years ago about damaging statements allegedly made by director John Landis and associate producer George Folsey Jr. several days before two child actors were killed in a helicopter accident during the 1982 filming of “Twilight Zone: The Movie.”

Schuman also testified that Kesselman said he would deliberately withhold the statements from the defense to avoid “tipping his hand.” In one of the statements, Landis had said, “We’re all going to go to jail” for illegally hiring the children, she testified.

The defense, subpoenaing Kesselman, argued that either Schuman was lying or the district attorney’s office obstructed justice by withholding important pretrial information.

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Kesselman, called to the stand for the second time this week by the defense, emphatically denied Schuman’s statements, terming them “absolutely untrue.” (Defense lawyers said afterward that they will attack Schuman’s credibility before the jury by calling Kesselman back when they present their side of the case).

After briefly cross-examining her fellow prosecutor, D’Agostino voluntarily took the witness stand herself to answer defense charges that she had presented false testimony from Schuman, whom she has said outside of court she believes “100 million percent--because I can’t count any higher.” In her brief and terse testimony, D’Agostino said Schuman had first informed her last July of Kesselman’s alleged remarks.

“I had many conversations with Mrs. Schuman, and she bit by bit told me various things that she had been told by Mr. Kesselman,” D’Agostino said.

Defense attorney Harland W. Braun then asked whether she had proceeded to discuss Schuman’s contentions with Kesselman or her superiors.

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“Absolutely not,” D’Agostino emphatically replied.

“Did you even realize there was a problem?” Braun continued.

“I realized there was a problem,” D’Agostino retorted. “I figured someone was probably trying to withhold information from me. . . .”

D’Agostino also testified that “it never occurred to me to ask Mr. Kesselman if (Schuman) was telling the truth,” since Kesselman, in preparing her to take over the case last year, had told her that he considered Schuman a credible witness.

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Indeed, D’Agostino contended, Kesselman told her that an investigation of possible cocaine use on the set was suspended because Schuman told Kesselman that Landis did not use the drug. Yet Kesselman, in cross-examination by D’Agostino, denied D’Agostino’s contention.

After the bizarre session, defense attorneys said that they believe Kesselman rather than Schuman. Braun added that he also believes D’Agostino may have committed perjury because she was “not telling the truth” concerning Schuman. Braun added that he expects to eventually call D’Agostino as well as Kesselman to testify with the jury present.

Chief Deputy Dist. Atty. Gilbert I. Garcetti, noting that he had never before seen a similar courtroom confrontation, said he will study transcripts before deciding whether to investigate the disagreement between his prosecutors.

“Anytime you have attorneys involved in a case, extremely well-respected lawyers who view themselves as top trial lawyers, egos are involved,” he said. ". . . Certainly it’s always my advice to prosecuting attorneys that if you’re handling the case, don’t take the stand.” Landis himself termed the courtroom confrontation “astonishing.”

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“It is remarkable for me to sit there and hear one district attorney call another district attorney a liar,” he said.

Landis, Folsey and three associates are charged with involuntary manslaughter in the deaths of Renee Chen, 6; Myca Dinh Lee, 7, and Vic Morrow, 53. The actors were killed when a helicopter crashed into them as they acted out a Vietnam War battle scene that involved several special-effects explosions.

The trial was recessed until Sept. 22.


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