Jurors in the Reginald O. Denny beating trial have been sequestered since Sunday, the judge presiding over the case revealed Tuesday, surprising attorneys in the case.
Superior Court Judge John W. Ouderkirk said he ordered the jury sequestered Thursday afternoon after interviewing members of the panel. He explained that he chose not to make his decision public until all of the arrangements had been made.
"There was no discussion of the case," Ouderkirk said of his Thursday meeting with jurors.
The meeting was conducted with a court reporter present, but the judge sealed the transcript of that session, saying he did not want to risk identifying members of the panel.
Jurors spent Sunday night at an undisclosed hotel, the judge said, adding that he has not decided if they will deliberate on weekends. But he said he is considering having the jury deliberate on Saturday because of the upcoming three-day Columbus Day holiday weekend.
Attorney Edi M.O. Faal, who represents defendant Damian Monroe Williams, said the judge's order took him by surprise, as did the judge's meeting with jurors without prosecutors and defense attorneys present.
But Faal declined to comment on Ouderkirk's actions. "That does not mean I don't have any thoughts on his actions," Faal said. "I like to reflect before saying anything."
Attorney Earl C. Broady Jr., who represents Henry Keith Watson, said he had never heard of a case where the judge met privately with the jury.
Deputy Dist. Atty. Lawrence C. Morrison said outside court that prosecutors had requested last spring--before jury selection began--that the panel be sequestered. He said sequestering the jury will ensure that the panel is not tainted by outside influences.
Williams, 20, and Watson, 29, are charged with the attempted premeditated murder of Denny at the intersection of Florence and Normandie avenues, a flash point for last year's riots. Williams is also accused of aggravated mayhem--intentionally causing permanent disability or disfigurement--for allegedly hitting Denny in the head with a brick. Attempted premeditated murder and aggravated mayhem carry maximum penalties of life in prison.
The two men also are charged with assaulting or robbing seven other people at the intersection as rioting broke out after not-guilty verdicts in the Rodney G. King beating trial in Simi Valley.
Prosecutors and defense attorneys were called to court Tuesday after the jury forewoman sent Ouderkirk a question on evidence. The panel wanted to know if closing arguments are evidence, specifically referring to Broady's statement that Watson "was definitely in the video" of assaults at Florence and Normandie.
Ouderkirk, defense attorneys and prosecutors agreed on the following answer: "Statements made by the attorneys in argument are not evidence. However, argument of all counsel may be considered for the purpose of guiding you in evaluating evidence."
Jurors did not reach a verdict Tuesday; they were scheduled to continue deliberations at 8:30 this morning.
In a separate development, a federal judge on Tuesday dismissed a lawsuit filed by Denny and three other riot victims, but told attorneys for the plaintiffs that they can refile the complaints with some necessary changes.
U.S. District Judge William Matthew Byrne said he will then decide whether the suit has legal merit. For the suit to go forward, he said, the plaintiffs must show that the city either had a "special relationship" with the defendants or that the city created a dangerous situation.
At least four other lawsuits for damages resulting from the riots have been dismissed by judges, who agreed with city attorneys that state law provides immunity for failure to either enforce laws or to provide police protection.
Attorney Johnnie L. Cochran Jr., who represents riot victims Denny, Fidel Lopez and Takao Hirata, said his suits are different from those dismissed earlier because they allege that the injuries resulted from "discriminatory deployment of police resources."