Gypsies Take Fight Against Age-Old Stigma Into Court

Times Staff Writer

The report from Probation Officer Will Manson, written last July, stated that burglary suspect Walter Larson, 37, "along with other weak-minded scheming Gypsies wormed their way into elderly victims' residences with the sole purpose of stealing various items of value. . . .

"Realistically, not much is known about this defendant, other than he is a Gypsy who undoubtedly has been living on the fringes of the law for a long period of time."

Manson's job was to report as thoroughly as possible on Larson's background to help the Long Beach Superior Court judge deliver his sentence. Weeks later, the Montebello resident was handed a five-year prison term for having taken $130 in four residential burglaries committed in Long Beach over a period of four hours in 1984.

Several years ago, perhaps few people would have complained about the language in the probation report or the tough sentence slapped on a first-time offender whose only previous conviction resulted in a $50 fine for fighting with his cousin. After all, for centuries Gypsies have been stigmatized as being little more that a bunch of filthy, devious, roaming fortunetellers.

But in 1984 the U.S. Romani (Gypsy) Council was formed to fight racial prejudice, and today it spearheads a civil rights movement that has chosen the Larson case to take a stand on. His trial, they believe, was tainted with the racist undertones and references to precisely the kind of negative stereotypes they are trying to eradicate.

"This is the most important case in Gypsy history," said anthropologist Ruth Anderson of the University of Texas who has spent 15 years studying Gypsy communities. "For the first time, they are standing up and objecting to discrimination instead of hiding or moving on to the next town."

Indeed, attorney Barry Fisher last week asked Superior Court Judge Charles Sheldon to reconsider Larson's sentence. "The trial was so contaminated by the racist language included in the probation report that it prevented Larson from receiving the fair trial he is entitled to under United States law," Fisher contended

Sitting behind Fisher in the courtroom Monday were John Merino, a real estate agent who heads the California chapter of the U.S. Romani Council, and Anderson, who had flown in for the hearing. On the next aisle were four members of Larson's family, all impeccably dressed in business suits and sober dresses.

And lying on the bench were letters from Merino; Ian Hancock, a U.S. delegate to the United Nations representing the International Romani Union, and Rep. Tom Lantos (D-San Mateo), all condemning the language in Manson's report.

Sentence 'Unusually Stiff'

Lantos, calling the sentence "unusually stiff," asked the judge to "take great care in the fact that (Larson) is a Romani does not weigh against him or interfere with his constitutional rights."

It was the first time that either the council or the union has spoken up on behalf of a Gypsy facing criminal charges.

The defense also submitted letters from neighbors and former customers who used Larson's services as a paving contractor vouching for the defendant's good conduct and depicting him as a responsible husband and father of four. In addition, the thick file before the judge included a lengthy sworn declaration by Anderson sketching the history of discrimination against the Gypsies. An estimated 500,000 were killed during the Holocaust.

They also complained that Sheldon specified that Larson serve the five-year sentence after completing time served on a separate federal charge. After his burglary arrest in 1984, Larson jumped bail and paid $5,000 to an undercover FBI agent to clear his record. He was rearrested several years later and is serving a three-year sentence for bribery. The defense claims that because of his limited knowledge of English and the American judicial system, Larson was not aware that he was committing bribery.

While the defense's motion was being heard in court, Manson sat behind his desk in the probation office unaware that a hearing based on his report was taking place elsewhere in the state building.

He remembered the Larson report but not in detail since it had been filed five months earlier. After rereading it, the veteran of 22 years with the Probation Department had no apologies.

'Shouldn't Say That'

"I didn't mean that all Gypsies are 'weak-minded,' but this guy obviously was since he was stealing from elders . . . and Gypsies are scheming, although I shouldn't say that. It would be an indictment. And 'worming,' well that's just figurative language."

Manson's boss, Phillip Stein, deputy director of the Probation Department's field services unit, was also unaware of the Larson hearing. But when he found out two days later, he did not hesitate to repudiate Manson's report.

"The implication (of the probation report) is obvious--that Gypsies steal. There is no need and no room for that," Stein said. "It was an extraordinarily bad choice of words, not compatible or consistent with anything this department endorses. I plan to have this thing checked out for possible disciplinary action."

When Sheldon called Larson's case Monday, the first to speak was Fisher, an esteemed lawyer in the Gypsy community for successfully arguing a landmark case to legalize fortunetelling in Asuza. As he made his opening remarks, the Gypsies and their supporters in the audience followed closely, their faces reflecting nervous optimism.

The attorney argued vehemently that "racism affected the official record" and spoke of the defendant's "commendable prison record."

But Assistant Dist. Atty. Scott Carbaugh asked Sheldon not to change his mind. "The probation officer was not the sentencing authority," he said, and since Sheldon's sentence was not based on "ethnic considerations," he saw no reason to have it reduced.

In other words, granting Fisher's motion would amount to Sheldon's admission that his previous sentence carried a racial bias.

Sheldon's response was short and direct. His sentence was not based on the probation report or the fact that Larson is a Gypsy. Motion denied.

Afterward, Carbaugh said he thought Larson deserved a stiffer sentence than what he got. He further believed that Manson's report was "fair and accurate." After all, it was a Gypsy who had committed the crimes, he said. "I don't see it as a racial comment."

Back in chambers, Sheldon explained his decision. "It's simple. Nothing was brought to my attention that should make me change my sentence." As for the report, all he would say was "there was a comment in it that was not necessary, but it had no effect in my decision."

Larson did not leave his Terminal Island prison cell for the hearing and was not available for comment.

The Larson camp was predictably disappointed by its day in court, but not disheartened. "Today's hearing is a happy first step," Fisher said. "I think we educated the court about the Gypsy community, and the publicity from today's hearing will encourage other Gypsies to stand up for their rights."

Fisher next plans to present a habeas corpus writ on behalf of his client, a legal instrument for inquiring into the lawfulness for Larson's imprisonment.

Merino was equally unwilling to concede defeat. "I'm not going to give up. If it's not good for Larson, it will be good for the next generation. I'm going to stick to this case to bring to light how they discriminate against us."

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