About 30 spectators--many of them communicating with sign language--crowded into Central Orange County Municipal Court on Friday to watch preliminary proceedings in the case of Ronald James Blaney Jr., a deaf man who is accused of murdering his former girlfriend and her mother in their Santa Ana home.
The Santa Ana proceeding, which was held to determine whether Blaney should be held over for trial, was interrupted for nearly an hour while Blaney's lawyer argued that his client could not get a fair trial because spectators who understood sign language could eavesdrop on their conversations.
Blaney, 30, is charged in the stabbing death of his ex-girlfriend, Priscilla Vinci, 34, who was also deaf, and her mother, Josephine Vinci, 65. They were found dead from multiple stab wounds in their Santa Ana home by a neighbor on May 4, 1987.
On Friday, prosecutors said they would seek special-circumstance charges of multiple murder and torture against Blaney because of the brutality of the slayings. The daughter had been stabbed 24 times.
Such charges carry a maximum penalty of death. However, prosecutors said they had not determined whether they would seek the death penalty.
Blaney was arrested in Arizona shortly after the killings and was later extradited to California. Neighbors of Josephine Vinci had told police that Vinci told them that her daughter had broken up with Blaney after he hit her.
Because of its participants, the case has attracted much interest in the deaf community. It was that interest that led to Friday's problems.
"I can't speak to him nor can he respond to me in a way that can be unknown to others in the courtroom," said defense attorney James S. Egar, as Blaney listened through a court-appointed interpreter, Paul Colton.
However, charging that such an action would be "a real affront" to the deaf community, Deputy Dist. Atty. Edward R. Munoz urged Gray to look for an "alternative" solution.
Siding with Munoz, Gray ordered all spectators who understood sign language to sit in the section of the court behind Blaney. He then ordered the bailiff to block their view with a large chalkboard whenever Egar wanted to speak privately with Blaney.
No decision was reached Friday, and Gray postponed continuation of the hearing until Feb. 26.