San Fernando Court Takes on a 'Kinder, Gentler' Look : Justice: A change in key players ends acrimony among prosecution and defense lawyers, leading to a sharp reduction in the backlog of cases.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

When Judge Armand Arabian opened the San Fernando Courthouse in 1983 he dubbed it "Fort San Fernando" amid hopes that it would gain a reputation where justice would be "swift, certain and substantial."

In the nearly 10 years since, justice in the North Valley District, if not always swift, has certainly been substantial. It has meant tougher sentences than in most other courthouses in the county.

But after only two months under a new supervising judge and a new head prosecutor, a new reputation is being forged at the Spanish Mission-style courthouse, one in which justice will be "swift, firm, but fair."

"Everyone is being reasonable and talking to each other," said Judge Judith Meisels Ashmann, who took over as supervising judge of the Superior Court on Jan. 4. "With the number of cases that we have, the system will only work through plea bargaining.

"I believe that the dispositions are still tougher than in many other courts, but I want to make sure that there is swift, firm, but fair justice."

Fair justice is the key point for Bill Weiss, who heads the public defender's office in San Fernando and spearheaded a yearlong fight last year to make sentences there consistent with other courthouses.

"This courthouse is like night and day" compared to last year, Weiss said. "There is a new environment of cooperation instead of one of pugilism."

Indeed, for most of last year, tension between prosecutors and defense attorneys was so high that they rarely spoke to each other outside the courtroom. Now, attorneys from both sides of the aisle are seen talking in the hallways and eating lunch together in the courthouse cafeteria.

"I think it is more than coincidence that this courthouse is now perceived as a kinder, gentler courthouse," said Philip Nameth, the supervising attorney for Alternate Defense Counsel, a private law firm contracted with the county to represent indigent defendants. "The lines of communication are now open and cases which should have been resolved and weren't in the past are now being resolved."

A key player in this friendlier atmosphere is the new head deputy district attorney, Stephen L. Cooley, who took over Jan. 18. He replaced Billy D. Webb, a hard-nosed 31-year veteran whom many defense attorneys said controlled the courthouse.

Webb made no apologies for wanting to put criminals behind bars for as long as possible. Last year he focused on repeat drug-dealing offenders, prohibiting his prosecutors from accepting any plea bargains for less than six years in prison in such cases.

Webb based his position on a section of the state Penal Code that calls for a "full, separate and consecutive three-year term for each prior felony conviction."

Defense attorneys argued that the standard sentence in most other courthouses is three years because judges would ignore the prior conviction in exchange for pleading guilty.

Webb remained committed up to his last day on the job--Jan. 15--sending a letter to The Times complaining about a sentencing in such a case that Judge Ashmann was scheduled to impose.

The case involved a 30-year-old Panorama City woman who was arrested for a third time since 1986 on suspicion of selling drugs. She faced a maximum sentence of about 11 years in prison, but agreed to plead guilty in exchange for a seven-year sentence.

"Striking a prior in such a case is an abuse of discretion which violated the clear dictates (of the Penal Code). Moreover, it is an intellectually dishonest act," Webb said in his letter. "It is inconceivable to me that any right-thinking person, let alone a judge of the Superior Court, would want to put a drug dealer back on the street so quickly."

Ashmann declined to discuss the case, saying only that she looks at the merits of each individual case before deciding an appropriate sentence, and that the law allows a judge the discretion to strike a prior conviction.

No one is keeping statistics on the disposition of repeat drug-dealing cases, but both prosecutors and defense attorneys said more are being settled prior to trial under Cooley's tenure.

Cooley issued a staff memo this month rescinding Webb's sacrosanct policy on repeat drug-dealing cases, saying that prosecutors are now free to evaluate all cases individually, and where appropriate, agree to accept the shorter sentences in exchange for a guilty plea.

The new policy is welcomed by defense attorneys.

"I think the prosecutor's office is doing the right thing in that they are taking a plea to a charge, defendants are admitting the prior convictions, and then allowing judges to use discretion," Weiss said. "The system in San Fernando is now working the way it should for the first time."

"Mr. Cooley has a reputation for being fair-minded," said James E. Blatt, a private defense attorney who has been trying cases in San Fernando since it opened. Instead of being at loggerheads, he said, prosecutors and defenders resolve cases.

There was speculation that some prosecutors would have difficulty adjusting to the changes because many were fiercely loyal to Webb and respected and admired the three judges who were transferred out of San Fernando, two of whom some defense attorneys complained had pro-prosecution leaning.

But the change has been smooth.

"Mr. Cooley is a very strong leader like Mr. Webb," Deputy Dist. Atty. Steve Ipsen said. "He is someone who I respect. He backs up his troops and he is establishing a good rapport with everyone.

"If the defense bar is happy because of a perception that they are getting better deals, then fine, but I haven't felt any pressure to let criminals off easy."

Deputy Dist. Atty. Jacquelyn Lacey said she has been pleased with the disposition of cases by the new judges, and in particular with Ashmann. Lacey said that in a recent case involving a man who kidnaped a 14-year-old runaway and forced her into prostitution, Lacey reluctantly agreed to a three-year sentence under a plea bargain.

Although the man faced a maximum sentence of 10 years, Lacey said, a conviction in a jury trial would have been difficult. She said she knew the girl's family would have difficulty understanding the agreement, and was pleasantly surprised when Ashmann backed her decision and explained to the family on the record why the deal was struck.

"I really appreciated that because it helped ease the victim's mind," Lacey said.

But at least one deputy district attorney, while praising Cooley as a good replacement for Webb, is still upset about the changes.

"It's really a disservice that the one man whom criminals are terrified of get punished," said the prosecutor, who asked not to be identified. "Mr. Webb is a tough man and a good man.

"They also should have left the judges alone. Sentences are now being reduced where they should not be reduced. Judges here, by their reputation, will undercut us. The old judges would have never done that. If you give away the courthouse, of course you get rid of cases. But that's nothing to be proud of, that's something to be ashamed of."

While criminals may not be getting sentences as harsh as in the past, Ashmann denies they are getting off easy.

"Nobody is getting away with anything," she said. "We are all here to serve the public."

Cooley agrees: "The older a case the worse it is for us because witnesses start forgetting things. It's in the public interest to get these cases resolved quickly and put criminals behind bars sooner."

Resolving cases quickly is not something that has happened in the past in the North Valley District. According to county statistics, in 1991--the most recent figures available--the average case in San Fernando took 106 days to adjudicate, the worst among the 10 districts in the county.

Part of the long wait is attributable to the high number of murder cases filed in San Fernando, which usually take longer. But other factors are that fewer cases were plea-bargained prior to trials and because, according to Ashmann, there was "a lot of just not moving the cases."

According to statistics kept by Ashmann, at the end of November, 1992, there were 535 criminal cases awaiting trial in San Fernando, more than half of them more than two months old, and 50 of them more than a year old.

By the end of last month, there were 360 cases pending trial, about 48% more than two months old, and 33 older than a year.

"A lot have gone to trial, plus through cooperative effort of all sides we have been able to resolve a great many cases without going to trial," Ashmann said, adding that prior to her arrival there was not an accurate accounting of a case's age.

The new attitude toward settling cases prior to trial is opening courtrooms sooner for trials, which in itself is resulting in more plea bargains because defendants realize they can no longer delay the process endlessly and that they face stiffer sentences if they are convicted in a jury trial.

In the first two months of this year, guilty pleas were entered in 274 newly filed and old cases in Superior Court, and 65 defendants entered guilty pleas in felony cases in Municipal Court.

"We have open courts and we are not going to grant continuances," Ashmann said.

The swift resolution of criminal cases is also having a positive effect on civil cases awaiting trial in San Fernando. Ashmann has restructured the process so that more judges are handling routine motions every day, which moves cases closer to trial.

There is still about a four-year wait for a civil case to reach trial, but civil litigators say they are optimistic that things will continue to improve in the future.

"The changes are dramatic," said attorney Gary L. Barr, immediate past president of the San Fernando Valley Bar Assn. "There just seems to be a different atmosphere among attorneys where everybody is working together to make the system work smoothly."

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