FIRST PERSON : An Offbeat Trial Changes Jury's Views of Homeless

TIMES STAFF WRITER

The defense "attorney" wore dreadlocks, a Hot Tropics Rasta Team T-shirt and sweats--a perfect foil for the proper gray-suited prosecutor at the other end of the counsel table.

That was our first clue that this would not be an ordinary trial.

Like other newcomers to jury duty, I had hoped for the Big Case. Hardly this--an inebriated Santa Monica transient charged with resisting arrest, a misdemeanor.

"My true name is Ocean," he told us. "And I'm the second son of God."

Sure.

How could I know that within three days this offbeat figure--who sighed a lot and sometimes drifted off in an apparent alcoholic haze after lunch--would change forever the way 12 complacent middle-class jurors view the homeless.

Acting as his own attorney in Santa Monica Superior Court, he took on the criminal justice system. On his terms. He accepted the first group of jurors called--"I love 'em all"--without challenging any. He put himself on the witness stand and answered questions helpfully posed by the judge. And he did not flinch when we delivered our verdict.

Until last month, homelessness had been an abstract concept for most of us, the subject of endless debate by the City Council, a problem best handled by walking around the shadowy figures trying to sleep in doorways and not giving panhandlers money for liquor.

But the trial of Thomas Harrison, a.k.a. Ocean, would force us to re-examine those notions about the homeless, about the ordinances Santa Monica has passed to deal with them, about police conduct and motives, about the taxpayer cost of $2,000-a-day in court resources on minor "crimes," and about what our role should be in upholding or thumbing our collective nose at the law.

On its surface, the case was simple: 45-year-old Ocean had been arrested one Saturday afternoon last August in the volleyball bleachers near the Santa Monica Pier after police tried to issue him a citation for drinking beer at a public beach. Since they had arrested him dozens of times, they knew him well; still they insisted that he provide identification.

When he answered them with expletives, they decided to handcuff and take him in. Drunk, he struggled with two burly officers from the Santa Monica Police Department's Homeless Enforcement Liaison Program, and what had begun as merely a ticket for having an open container of alcohol ended up as one criminal count of resisting arrest.

Only Ocean and the two officers who arrested him testified. None of the many witnesses each side referred to were called.

After being warned by Municipal Judge J. Rex Minter of the pitfalls of representing himself, Ocean--intelligent and articulate--told his story. Of 12 years on the streets. Of a mellow life at the beach. Of continuous hassling by the police, especially one Officer Thomas Tanner, who a public defender would later allege "has a problem with the homeless."

On the day of his arrest, the homeless man said, he had polished off a "short dog of Cisco" (a small bottle of fortified wine) with a friend. He was not drinking beer, but was returning to the bleachers from the sand when the police approached. He had said nothing to Tanner, he insisted, when the officer grabbed him, threw him down, handcuffed him with the aid of a second officer, and punched him in the jaw.

Unnecessary and unreasonable, contended Ocean.

"I'm cool. I'm on the street for over 10 years. I've been arrested 20 times over the past six or seven years--for being drunk, having an open container or something I didn't do."

But Tanner told a different story.

He arrested the homeless man, he said, because he was "verbally uncooperative." Yes, he admitted, he could have retrieved Ocean's date of birth and mailing address from the police computer had he wanted to take a few minutes. Yes, he knew the defendant's real name and had a complete physical description.

But he chose otherwise, and Ocean "began to violently resist, pulling away, pushing me down."

During cross-examination by Ocean, it became apparent that the two men had been sparring with each other for years. Their hostility was palpable. Tanner had decided to "kick butt" and Ocean had risked a trial for the chance to skewer his nemesis on the stand, even though he could have asked instead that the charges be dropped or that he be allowed to plead to a lesser offense.

"In fact, Officer Tanner," said Ocean, adopting his best defense attorney tone, "it didn't matter whether I had anything (alcoholic) or not; you was just there to arrest somebody wasn't you?"

"No," said Tanner, squirming in the witness chair.

Ocean implored us to find him not guilty.

"It's been an emotional trial, I understand," he said during his final argument. "(But) I'm here telling you this: They was coming for me anyway. Officer Tanner--the police officer with those two stripes--he's a liar. He just hides his prejudice under the cloak of authority.

"Even if a street person don't give nobody an address, that shouldn't be no cause for arresting him. Seriously. He has been knowin' me for years.

"It's been going on for years. Something has to be done. Could you please, not 'cause I'm a street person and poor and I'm no fighter, could you . . . ?" Pausing, he sighed. "I put my hands up. That's all."

We were with him.

But Deputy City Atty. Paul Bahan--whose boss, City Atty. Robert Myers, is on record as opposing prosecution of the homeless for nonviolent misdemeanors--had the last word.

"This isn't about his being a street person, about prejudice," said Bahan. "There's no question that he was drinking at the beach that Saturday afternoon and that the police were enforcing the ordinance against that. They were simply trying to fine him with a ticket."

Police expect a certain amount of hostility when they attempt an arrest, he said. But Ocean's behavior cannot be justified by the fact that he is poor.

"Although this is hardly the case of the century, it's clear that Mr. Harrison did resist, delay, obstruct police efforts," he said, adding, "Thomas Harrison has lied to you."

Bahan suggested that Ocean wasn't sober enough to remember accurately what happened that afternoon.

"They did not have it out for Mr. Harrison," he said.

Back in the jury room, we were not so sure.

Even if it was a lawful arrest and he had indeed resisted, could we find him not guilty if we believed the police were trying to give him a hard time?

Within the hour we reluctantly agreed that he was technically guilty. We reminded each other that we were sworn to uphold the law, even if we didn't agree with it.

Ocean stood proudly as the court clerk read the verdict, then asked that each juror be polled. I thought I was going to be sick.

Few of us slept that night.

We huddled the next morning in the jury assembly room. "I passed a bunch of homeless people on my way here this morning, and I couldn't look at them," one said. "You think we made the right decision?" asked another.

As jury foreman, then, I delivered a note to Minter expressing our concerns and asking that he fashion a creative sentence for Ocean, pointing out that neither he nor society stood to benefit from jail time or citations.

But we had underestimated Ocean. Exhibiting the same tenacity at his sentencing hearing that has served him so well on the streets of Santa Monica, Ocean asked for a new trial. The judge, who said he would have dismissed the case for insufficient evidence had the man not insisted on a jury trial, appointed a deputy public defender to handle the motion and set a hearing for Jan. 17.

I saw Ocean at the beach last week. In the very bleachers where he had been arrested. He was gazing at the ocean, and when we talked he sounded upbeat about his future. He volunteers at the local Y, cleaning up in exchange for a place to store his few belongings and take showers.

If he loses his bid for a new trial, he said, he is "considering asking to be sent to Acton (a county alcoholism treatment facility) I been hearing good things about."

He has been arrested twice for drunkenness since his conviction, and prosecutor Bahan says that, because of Ocean's many previous arrests, he plans to ask for a one-year sentence, which would mean four or five actual months in custody.

"Many of the arrests are minor," he conceded. "But some involve violence and exposure when drunk. He is not just a public inebriate; he gets nasty when he is drunk.

"I don't know what the criminal justice system should do," Bahan said. "It is not really equipped to deal with people like Ocean. There was a time when there were more (social) programs, but as they are shut down, it all comes back to us, everything from spousal batteries to public inebriates."

We jurors become less sure of our decision with each passing day.

The worst for me came Christmas Day, when I told a respected legal authority visiting my home about the case, hoping he would see it my way.

He didn't.

"You followed the letter of the law but you did not do what was right ," he concluded, after hearing the story. "His 'crime' flows from his wretched state--he doesn't have a home to drink in privately like we do.

"Think of it this way: Had you been sitting on a Southern jury in the 1950s, would you have found a black man 'guilty' because he violated Jim Crow laws that relegated blacks to the back of the bus?"

I didn't have a good answer.

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