The judge in the Randy Steven Kraft trial, increasingly impatient with the pace of courtroom activity, declared Tuesday that he will hold a hearing after the trial is over to determine whether delays by the defense in presenting witnesses have been reasonable.
Although Judge Donald A. McCartin did not describe it as a contempt of court hearing, that’s how Kraft attorney C. Thomas McDonald viewed it. He immediately lashed back at the judge.
“This is impacting my ability to effectively and fairly represent Mr. Kraft,” McDonald told the court. “It’s going to reflect on my willingness to vigorously represent Mr. Kraft if I feel that the court is threatening me with contempt at the end of the case.”
Although McDonald was shouting at the judge, he said later that he would characterize his demeanor as “assertive” instead of “excited.”
“This is an extremely complex case,” McDonald said. “We’re doing the best we can under the circumstances.”
Kraft, 43, is charged with 16 Orange County murders. But he is accused by prosecutors of a total of 45 murders in Southern California, Oregon, and Michigan, many of which will be mentioned to the jury if the trial reaches a penalty phase. It took Kraft’s attorneys 5 years to prepare for trial, a time they said they needed to investigate all the deaths attributed to their client.
When the prosecution ended its case in November, the defense was given until Jan. 30 to begin presenting witnesses. Since then, they have rarely had enough witnesses to keep the court in session a full day.
McCartin expressed irritation Tuesday that jurors were outside the courtroom waiting to enter on time at 9:15 a.m., but McDonald wasn’t in court because he was still interviewing a witness.
The judge complained that the defense has seldom had more than 2 hours of testimony a day since it began presenting witnesses.
“I think I’ve bent over backwards to be extremely fair,” the judge said. “But the jury is going to wonder what in the world we are doing. I mean they come in at 9:15 in the morning and and have no idea why they are sitting (outside the courtroom) until 10 o’clock.”
McDonald responded: “Your honor, if you can get somebody else to handle this in a more expeditious fashion, I welcome it. Frankly, I’m going as fast as I can here.”
And the judge responded: “We will put it in the drawer for now. I’m just saying that when the end of this case is over, we will have a hearing and see if the reasons you stated (for any morning delays) are valid.”
Judge McCartin said a citation for contempt would be a possible option if the defense explanation turns out to be unsatisfactory.
McDonald asked for a mistrial--the third time he has done so since testimony began last September--but McCartin denied it.
Deputy Dist. Atty. Bryan F. Brown was quiet during most of this exchange, but when the judge asked him if he had anything to say, he let McDonald have it.
The problem is not just getting the defense to start on time in the mornings, Brown said. “Once we start, it peters out after a few witnesses.”
Brown went on: “I’m having a difficult time believing Mr. McDonald when he says that the court’s comments are compromising his ability to represent Mr. Kraft. That’s just got to be a bunch of baloney. The court has not put anywhere near the pressure on them that the court has put on the (prosecution).
Brown reminded the judge of his comment when Brown ran out of witnesses one day last September about 20 minutes before the normal 4:30 p.m. stopping time. “I want those witnesses out there three deep from now on,” he told Brown at the time.
“The court hasn’t done that to the defense. . . . Yesterday was a good example. What did we have, three witnesses yesterday?” Brown said.
The judge countered that he did not want to pressure McDonald on how many witnesses he must produce each day because, “I don’t want the record to reflect I’m trying to put a firecracker to his ear. . . .”
“Well, your honor,” replied McDonald, “I would say threatening me with contempt is a firecracker by my standards.”