First in Pilot Program : 100 Suspects Have Had 'Instant' Arraignments

Times Staff Writer

Moments after being ordered to stand trial on allegations that he beat his wife to death and covered up the crime by staging an auto accident, a Tarzana man was formally charged with murder and other crimes.

Robert Peernock could have waited in County Jail at least 14 days to be charged in Superior Court. Instead, he was instantly arraigned last month by a San Fernando Municipal Court judge under a pilot program designed to speed justice for felony defendants and reduce Los Angeles County's huge jail population.

Court officials said Peernock is one of about 100 defendants who have waived the two-week delay and have been arraigned in Municipal Court since the program began Dec. 14. Originally, the program was to expand to the Van Nuys Municipal Court on Jan. 1, but officials have decided to wait until "any glitches are worked out," said Richard A. Paez, presiding judge of the city's Municipal Court system.

San Fernando was chosen because, contrasted with other courts, many of those ordered to stand trial there were in jail, he said.

Paez said it is too early to tell whether the program will reduce the county's jail population, which has skyrocketed from about 8,000 to about 22,000 in less than a decade.

Billy Desmond Webb, head of the San Fernando branch of the district attorney's office, said the program appears to be shortening the time it takes a defendant to get to trial because the defendant has to make one less court appearance.

However, Jim Gregory, president of the San Fernando Valley Criminal Defense Bar, questioned the program's effect on serious felony cases--such as murder and rape--where a preliminary-hearing transcript must be produced. Court reporters ordinarily transcribe their preliminary hearing notes within the 14-day period. Attorneys will have to postpone further hearings until they get the transcripts, Gregory said.

In less-serious felonies, where a transcript is unnecessary--such as auto theft and drug cases--the program seems effective, Gregory said.

San Fernando Municipal Court Judge James E. Satt said judges are taking a hard line against postponing pretrial conferences, the next step after arraignments. Satt said judges were at first giving attorneys 21 days to prepare for the conferences but have reduced that to 10 days.

Bitner Winckler, head of the San Fernando branch of the public defender's office, said his attorneys have reported no problems with the program.

Gregg Marcus, supervising judge of the San Fernando Municipal Court, said that, although the program appears to be working smoothly, Municipal Court clerks have complained about extra paper work.

Under the program, the clerks are deputized by the Superior Court and are responsible for paper work usually taken care of higher-court clerks. San Fernando Municipal Court clerks said it takes about 10 to 15 minutes to complete the papers for each defendant. About two defendants a day have been arraigned under the program.

"It's just another pain," said Beverly Walker, a clerk with 26 years of experience. "We're doing the Superior Court clerk's job without getting paid anything extra."

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