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Courts Begin Processing Wave of Suspects

TIMES STAFF WRITER

The first day in court for the 6,000, the accused looters and arsonists from the riots of ’92, is scheduled to begin at 8 a.m. sharp.

“Where are the bodies?” asks assistant public defender Stan Efron, waiting in a fifth-floor courtroom. “We can’t do anything until we get the bodies. And the paperwork. Then the bodies have to match the paperwork.”

But that won’t be easy on this Saturday, when the chaos of the streets will overwhelm the Los Angeles County criminal justice system: Prosecutors in sweats, golf shirts and running shoes scramble to translate thousands of arrest reports--scrawled by police in the heat of battle--into criminal charges. Public defenders search crowded holding tanks for their next client, wondering whether they’ll find a hardened gang member or a contrite mother caught stealing T-bone steaks.

On the 17th floor of the downtown Criminal Courts Building, a police officer carts a box stuffed with files into the offices of the district attorney’s filing section, where the two dozen prosecutors are engaged in a frantic legal triage: deciding who will be charged with felonies (800 by day’s end), who to ship to the city attorney’s office (which will have charged 400 with misdemeanors by closing) and which cases (fewer than 10%) will be classified “reject,” meaning someone will be set free.

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“Where from?” someone asks the arriving officer.

“Hollywood Division.”

“How many bodies?”

“Forty.”

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Here, “bodies” are what they call the files.

There’s one for a young man caught with two gold lamps, another for the crew caught running out of Hope’s Market & Liquor, another for the guy with a sawed-off shotgun who told friends, “The next time the police . . . with me, I got something for them.”

There’s also a file for the 68-year-old grandmother who told officers she was just “dumb and ignorant.” And another for the three women arrested in the Superboy market at Florence and Vermont, found at 7 a.m. loading three shopping carts with meat and liquor, “value $1,500,” the police report says.

It’s a system based around numbers: arsons are 451s, calling for bail of $35,000, maximum sentence six years. Burglaries are code 459s, bail $5,000, maximum sentence three years.

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There’s a criminal charge for looting, too, but the California Penal Code specifies that it covers only thefts after earthquakes or floods, not civil disturbances.

“They forgot to put it in,” prosecutor Norm Shapiro shrugs.

On what would normally be a day off, the deputy DAs huddle in cubbyhole offices with uniformed Los Angeles police officers, who lead them through the arrest reports, one by one.

Two prosecutors who normally work at the district attorney’s Santa Monica office consider the case of a young man caught after a chase with “12 bags of goodies” nearby. But no witnesses saw him take the stuff from a looted store.

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“Burglary?” one of the prosecutors asks the other.

“No one saw him go in, right?”

“Totally circumstantial.”

“A close call.”

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The debate continues, reflecting the dilemma in many cases of arrests made in the midst of riot.

When a decision is reached to file charges, secretaries pound out the forms in a central room. Sheriff’s deputies then are called to find the suspects from among the thousands taken into custody. Then the paperwork--and the real bodies--are supposed to meet in the courtroom 12 floors below, Division 30, Municipal Judge Patti Jo McKay presiding.

By noon, though, there are still no bodies.

The prosecutor at the court, gray-bearded veteran Irvin Cohen, takes it in stride. “We only do this every 25 years,” he notes.

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He was already with the district attorney’s office when the Watts riots broke out. Had to call off a salmon-fishing trip, he recalls.

By now, he has been joined by about 15 public defenders, who will represent most of the suspects. A sign outside warns “No Food and Drink,” but they nurse coffee and cookies while waiting for the clients to arrive at the large holding tank behind the court.

Two of the deputy public defenders begin speculating about the type of people they’ll find. Outsiders may think of public defenders as all being liberal do-gooders, but this discussion quickly turns into a debate that might be heard all around town, where people with different backgrounds voice differing views of just who it is that riots, and why.

Stephanie Dupin, 43 and black, argues that the riots are a consequence of “the class situation in this country.” She was a teen-ager in Watts during the 1965 riots, and recalls sleeping on the living room floor to escape bullets.

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This time, she tells a colleague, she drove down Beverly Boulevard and saw “people taking eggs, lettuce, food to feed children . . . a comment on our times.”

But another defender, 51 and white, expects to see harder-core suspects than “mamas taking Pampers.”

“I definitely see criminality,” she says. “People who take a TV? I do believe that’s a jail-time offense.”

The white defender worries that the riots will destroy property values--she owns five apartment buildings--and tarnish Los Angeles’ international image. But Dupin is more optimistic, noting the two women had driven around downtown to assess the damage and saw six Japanese men carrying briefcases, seemingly going about their business.

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“They were getting out of Dodge,” her colleague retorts.

“No,” Dupin says. “If they were getting out of Dodge, they wouldn’t be walking.”

The debate is interrupted when word comes that 60 defendants are in the holding cell. The lawyers hurry off to interview their new clients through the bars, but soon return, shaking their heads--these are not the bodies for whom they have paperwork. Few can be arraigned yet.

At 3:30 p.m., seven suspects finally are paraded into court, behind protective glass. Young men from East Los Angeles, they all are charged with burglary or receiving stolen property--mostly shirts and athletic shoes--from a Sports Plaza store on Brooklyn Avenue.

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Police reportedly saw a mob of people leave the store, and they eventually arrested these seven: one pushing a cart loaded with loot, two others running near him, the last four in or near a home where more of the merchandise was found. “They may just be the seven slowest people in the neighborhood,” quips one defense attorney as not guilty pleas are entered on their behalf.

The judge sets bail at $5,000 for six and $15,000 for one who is on probation.

Another public defender, Elisa Poteat, uses a computer to check the criminal records of defendants assigned to her. “A lot of first-timers,” she reports. “Some don’t even have traffic tickets.”

They seem to her “a rag-taggle bunch of extremely destitute folks. . . . Not our usual clients.”

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It may be their fatigue after their hours on the streets and at least a day in custody, she says, but the bodies in the tank seem unusually docile--there’s not the normal yelling back and forth or badgering of demands.

Her riot clients include a “local drunk” who lives downtown “in a box on Spring Street.” When arrested, she says, he told police, “Shoot me! Why don’t you shoot me?”

He was charged with having stolen goods, and Poteat speculates--perhaps preparing the defense--it was “just something he picked up in the street.”

Also toying with strategies is Lyle Herrick, a veteran defender who drove two hours from his home in Crestline, in the San Bernardino Mountains, to help out. He ponders the case of an older man charged with looting a burned-out auto supply store in South Los Angeles.

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“Picked up a couple of light bulbs,” Herrick says. “Replacement bulbs for taillights.”

He wonders whether it’s a break-in “since there wasn’t even a roof.”

“I think we can argue that wasn’t burglary,” he tells a colleague.

So it goes haltingly into the night, well past curfew-time outside, to complete 78 felony arraignments. The defenders were to return this morning, as were the prosecutors, who still had thousands of files to pore through.

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“Hopefully it will go better,” says court spokesman Marcia Skolnik. “Today was a mess.”


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