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CALIFORNIA ELECTIONS / PROPOSITION 115 : Court Reform Measure Raises Controversy

TIMES STAFF WRITER

When Collene Campbell of San Juan Capistrano learned two years ago that her brother, Mickey Thompson, and his wife, Trudy, had been murdered in front of their Bradbury home, she and her husband, Gary, were already scheduled to speak to a group in San Diego about court reform.

They kept their appointment.

“We were more determined than ever to do something about this criminal justice system of ours,” Collene Campbell said.

That determination was spurred by a group of Orange County prosecutors, who convinced the Campbells that if enough people statewide got upset about California’s plodding court system, something could be done.

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The result is a controversial initiative on the June 5 ballot--Proposition 115--that has prosecutors excited but leaves defense lawyers and the American Civil Liberties Union aghast.

While defense attorneys claim that it would trample individual rights, prosecutors are convinced that the measure would shorten the time between arrest and trial and streamline the state judicial process to make it more like the federal system. It would also expand the death penalty and set new limits on the rights of criminal defendants, among other things.

That may be welcome news to voters. A recent Los Angeles Times poll shows strong support for Proposition 115.

Orange County Deputy Dist. Atty. James P. Cloninger, who was in on the early meetings when Proposition 115 was just a few ideas jotted down on paper, fears that it is almost too good to be true.

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“If this passes, it will mean accomplishing one of the goals I had when I became a prosecutor,” Cloninger said. “This proposition is for the victims of crime. Helping victims is what we’re here for.”

If Proposition 115 passes, it will be due in large part to a group of Orange County residents who were part of a statewide movement in 1986 to oust former California Chief Justice Rose Elizabeth Bird and two other state Supreme Court justices. They were upset that the justices had consistently voted against the death penalty and had favored other pro-defendant positions.

The seeds of Proposition 115 were planted in the aftermath of the anti-Bird campaign in the November, 1986, election.

“It seemed to us that it might take years to undo some of the damage of many of the Bird court rulings,” said Anthony J. Rackauckas, a former Orange County prosecutor and one of those who participated in the initial meetings on what would eventually become Proposition 115. “We decided there was still work to be done even with her gone.”

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Rackauckas was recently appointed to the bench in North Orange Municipal Court in Fullerton. His involvement in the campaign for Proposition 115 is restricted by the state judicial ethics code. However, he remains publicly committed to the initiative.

The initial organizing group included Rackauckas, Cloninger, Kern County Dist. Atty. Edward R. Jagels and two deputy prosecutors from Los Angeles, Sterling E. Norris and Al McKenzie.

Cloninger and Rackauckas wrote most of the initiative’s first draft, while Jagels, who became chairman of the group, took on the role of organizing a campaign. Norris and McKenzie helped with the writing and became public spokesmen.

“I must have made hundreds of speeches on this,” McKenzie said. “I found people enthusiastic once they understood what it was about.”

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Rackauckas said prosecutors statewide wanted to help. For example, he said, he and Cloninger wanted to include a section in the initiative on so-called “mutual discovery.” Under current law, the defense may ask to see the prosecution’s entire case against a defendant before trial, but the defense doesn’t have to tell the prosecution much of anything about its own case. Proposition 115 would force the defense to make some pretrial revelations to prosecutors.

“We found out that a group of prosecutors in San Diego had already put a lot of work into researching mutual discovery,” Rackauckas said. “So, once they got involved, that was just a tremendous boost for us on that issue.”

The prosecutors decided that they needed help from two disparate groups: crime victims and politicians.

To lead the way for victims, they sought out Collene Campbell.

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McKenzie refers to Campbell, Rackauckas and Cloninger as “three titans of this court reform movement.”

Campbell became state chairwoman of the California Crime Victims Justice Committee, a conduit for what eventually became Proposition 115.

Being victims is something the Campbells know something about.

In 1982, their son Scott was murdered, then dropped from a private airplane flying at 2,000 feet near Santa Catalina Island. After his two killers were finally brought to trial, five years of court delays ensued before they were finally convicted. Then one of them won a new trial on appeal. It wasn’t until shortly before Christmas, 1989, that he was convicted again.

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While the Campbells were awaiting results of the appeals by their son’s killers, Collene’s only sibling, racing entrepreneur Mickey Thompson, and his wife were murdered. The Thompson killings remain unsolved.

That court reform meeting in San Diego right after the Thompsons’ deaths was just one of hundreds the Campbells would be involved in.

“Collene is tremendous,” McKenzie said. “She and her husband, Gary, have been totally devoted to this movement.”

Much of the Campbells’ time has been spent in getting other victims involved in their court reform movement.

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Among politicians, the prosecutors found willing help--again in Orange County--from state Sen. Edward R. Royce (R-Anaheim). His office helped with much of the organization, and Royce used his personal contacts to get people statewide involved in the movement.

Royce first tried to push a court reform package through the Legislature but was unsuccessful.

The Proposition 115 organizers also had little success at first. Two previous efforts at a statewide initiative failed.

“We just didn’t have the money to put together the kind of organization you need to gather all those signatures,” Cloninger said.

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Collene Campbell said she remembers how crushed she was when the prosecutors told her in 1988 that the initiative efforts had failed, that they would have to regroup the next year.

“We were not going to give up, but it’s so frustrating to see all that hard work come up short,” she said at the time.

The failed initiative effort, however, had served a purpose. The organizers now had a statewide network of volunteers. All they needed was a better bankroll to put together an organization effective enough to gather the needed signatures to put the initiative on the June 5, 1990, ballot.

Cloninger and Rackauckas said the financing came last year--about $800,000 in donations--after U.S. Sen. Pete Wilson (R-San Diego) endorsed the court reform measure.

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“Without Pete Wilson, there would be no Proposition 115,” Cloninger said. “It was his support that really turned it around for us.”

Since then, Proposition 115 has gained endorsements from Gov. George Deukmejian, Dianne Feinstein, a Democratic candidate for governor, and former President Ronald Reagan.

A problem for the Proposition 115 supporters is that they have raised so little money since the petition drive depleted their bankroll that they cannot mount a major media campaign, with television and radio ads, before the election. But there is a plus for them: Their opponents cannot afford such a campaign either.

If Proposition 115 has its roots in Orange County, it also has its detractors here. Michael P. Giannini, an Orange County deputy public defender, said it will be a shame if Proposition 115 passes.

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“We are all affected, even the victims, if a defendant’s basic right to a fair trial is impaired,” Giannini said. “And that’s what this initiative will do.”

But the Proposition 115 supporters are buoyed by the polls they have seen.

Cloninger and other prosecutors met last week with members of the state attorney general’s office to discuss proper implementation if the measure passes.

“It’s going to be enacted,” Rackauckas said confidently. “And when it does, California is going to have a better court system.”

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