D.A. Proposes That 3 Juries Hear Westlake Brawl Case : Court: Arraignment of third suspect in melee at North Ranch Park is delayed; a fourth youth has disappeared. Defense attorneys oppose prosecutor’s suggestion.
Two of the three defendants accused in a brawl that left a pair of Westlake High School students shot pleaded not guilty Wednesday, as lawyers debated the best way to handle what promises to be a complex trial.
Defendant John Yi, 17, was granted a two-week delay of his arraignment because his lawyer did not attend Wednesday’s hearing.
Yi, a Taiwanese-American who lives in Thousand Oaks, told Acting Superior Court Judge Bruce A. Clark that he needed the extra time so his father could return to their homeland and collect money for Yi’s legal bills.
Charged with four felony counts stemming from the brawl, Yi refused Clark’s offer of a court-appointed lawyer. He is free on $50,000 bail.
Against the objections of defense lawyers, Clark ordered bail to remain at $50,000 for each of the two defendants entering not-guilty pleas Wednesday.
Oubansack (Andy) Sonethanouphet, 16, of Brea in Orange County, is charged with two counts of assault with a firearm. William Huang, 17, of Rowland Heights in Los Angeles County, is charged with two counts of aiding and abetting a shooting and one count of assault.
A fourth suspect--James Lee, 16, whom authorities say helped start the brawl--is a fugitive. Lee is believed to have fled to his native Taiwan.
The melee began after Westlake High football player Curtis Simmons and Lee agreed to meet at North Ranch Park for a fistfight Feb. 3, according to court testimony.
Lee’s supporters, including the three defendants in court Wednesday, emerged from their vehicles and announced: “We’re the Asian Mafia.” They then attacked Simmons and his friends with bats, sticks and gunfire, according to investigators.
In an unusual request, Deputy Dist. Atty. John A. Vanarelli told the judge that three juries, all seated in the same courtroom, might be needed to hear the case.
Unless the triple jury is allowed, the case will require a separate trial for each defendant, he said.
While dual-jury trials are not unusual in larger jurisdictions, Ventura County has never had more than a single jury hear any one case, said Elizabeth A. Kane, a court spokeswoman.
Defense attorneys oppose Vanarelli’s request, on which the judge is expected to rule on Sept. 2, one week before the trial.
“I just think it would be a circus,” said Deputy Public Defender Donna L. Forry. She noted that a dual-jury system was used during the high-profile murder trial of Erik and Lyle Menendez.
“I don’t know whether he is getting the idea from, the Menendez case or what,” Forry said.
“It’s really weird,” commented Huang’s attorney, John E. Meyers. “It’s off the wall. I’ve done trials with two (juries), and it’s crowded.”
But Vanarelli, during an interview, defended his suggestion.
Vanarelli said using three juries in a single trial would allow the court to try each defendant simultaneously.
A single jury cannot hear the case because each defendant gave police a lengthy statement after being arrested, he said. Under state law, an unsworn statement by one defendant cannot be used to implicate a co-defendant, although court testimony can be.
So by having three separate juries, prosecutors could simply ask the panel of the defendant being implicated to leave the courtroom until after the damaging tape is played, Vanarelli said.
The defense attorneys said prosecutors should get permission from the judge to erase the tainted statements from the tapes, which is allowed under state law.
Vanarelli said that is not feasible because the tapes are too voluminous.
“The statements they gave are very complete, and we’d rather not run the risk of trying to chop them up,” the prosecutor said.