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How to Beat the Rap: Take Your Nine-Iron and Be Rich

In his latest movie, Jack Nicholson plays a man who, after being bitten by a wolf, is transformed into sort of a werewolf.

I saw the trailer last weekend and Nicholson certainly looked fearsome.

But not nearly as fearsome, I bet, as he looked to Robert S. Blank, 38, a salesman who had stopped his 1969 Mercedes Benz at the Toluca Lake intersection of Moorpark Way and Riverside Drive at 11:50 a.m. last Feb. 8. As related by police and prosecutors, this is what happened:

A black Mercedes stopped next to Blank’s car and two men emerged. One of them, the driver, told Blank: “You cut me off.” Quite sensibly, Blank locked the doors of his car. The driver proceeded to beat on the roof of Blank’s car with a golf club. Then he came around to the front.

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Only then, as he looked through his windshield, did Blank see his assailant’s face. It was the face known to millions, that of Jack Nicholson. Nicholson swung the club once more, hitting the window directly in front of Blank. The safety glass window smashed, sending tiny bits of glass flying over Blank. Nicholson and his companion then drove off in the actor’s car.

Blank reported the attack to the police, and the actor was charged with misdemeanor assault and vandalism. Scott also filed a civil suit against Nicholson.

The next move was Nicholson’s. He settled the suit by agreeing to give Blank an undisclosed amount of money. Blank told the court he didn’t want to pursue the case. Then, over the prosecution’s objections, Municipal Judge Martin Suits dropped all criminal charges against Nicholson.

As they say in the legal trade, when referring to a defendant who escapes tough punishment, Nicholson walked.

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It’s easy to joke about the attack. A lot of people have. But, in truth, it was one of those incidents we Southland motorists have nightmares about--the driver in the next car suddenly turning violent.

And the outcome of the case of the People of the State of California vs. Jack Nicholson illustrates something equally disturbing--how our criminal justice system is stacked in favor of the rich and powerful.

Imagine, for example, if a machinist from Boyle Heights or a student from Van Nuys High School had done what Nicholson did. They’d be in a lot of trouble.

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That point was on my mind Wednesday when I went to the Van Nuys municipal building and talked to the prosecutor, Deputy Los Angeles City Atty. Jeff Harkavy.

Harkavy, who has been a prosecutor for 10 years, talked about the Nicholson case with a disciplined lawyer’s calm. Nobody put in the fix, he said. Judge Suits isn’t a Tinseltown groupie. Rather, he presides over the small Avenal Justice Court in rural Kings County, a part-time job. He comes down to Van Nuys court the rest of the week under a law designed to make full use of justice court judges and to allow them to earn full judicial salaries. “I truly did not believe Mr. Nicholson’s celebrity status had anything to do with it,” Harkavy said.

It may not have been the actor’s fame, but as I went over the case with Harkavy I could see that Nicholson’s money had everything to do with the outcome.

We’ll start with the police. Detective Robert Searle sought to talk to Nicholson. He said he “spoke with Mr. Abe Somer, attorney for suspect. (I) was advised suspect would make no statement regarding incident.”

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It usually doesn’t work out as well for an ordinary suspect, unequipped with a battery of lawyers. The unmoneyed, once police advise them of their right to remain silent, often end up telling all when under the spell of a persuasive detective.

Most important, Nicholson’s money gave him the luxury of settling the case under an 1872 law permitting many misdemeanor charges, including assault and vandalism, to be dropped if the accused pays off the victim. After the agreement, the amount of the settlement was sealed, despite the objection of Deputy City Atty. Harkavy. “The people have a right to know how much it was,” he told me.

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I placed several calls to Charles English, the top criminal lawyer on the Nicholson team, but we never made connections. However, earlier this month, Times reporter Thom Mrozek quoted him as saying Nicholson has “been treated more severely than an ordinary citizen.”

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Harkavy disagreed.

“A crime of violence toward a person takes on a very different dimension than a crime against property,” he said. “In this case, Mr. Nicholson, whether or not he intended it, placed Mr. Blank in danger of injuring his eyesight, losing his eyesight.

“The concern is that we don’t want this to happen again.”

In other words, a case tried in criminal court--as Nicholson’s would have been without the settlement--sends a message that we are a nation of laws, applied equally and fairly.

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If you’re guilty, you’re convicted, and you have to live with your criminal record. This happens to hundreds of thousands in our criminal courts every year.

Wealthy and well-advised enough to escape that fate, Nicholson walked. As Harkavy told Nicholson’s lawyer afterward, this “wasn’t in the interests of justice.”


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