The long-awaited murder trial of a man accused of killing the son of internationally known entertainer Bill Cosby got underway with an explosive beginning and lightning speed Tuesday as the presiding judge began the often laborious process of selecting a jury.
Even before the pool of 94 jurors was summoned into the courtroom for questioning, the prosecution caused an uproar by charging that defendant Mikail Markhasev, a 19-year-old Ukrainian immigrant, is a "made member" of the notorious prison gang known as the Mexican Mafia--and that his gang connections could pose a danger to members of the jury.
Markhasev has been charged with killing Ennis Cosby in a failed robbery attempt Jan. 16, 1997, when the 27-year-old graduate student stopped on Skirball Center Road off the San Diego Freeway to change a tire on his Mercedes-Benz convertible.
Despite strict controls over press coverage and a court-ordered ban on cameras in the courtroom, broadcast and newspaper reporters from all over the country converged on the Santa Monica courthouse.
It is the second celebrity-tinged trial to spotlight this tiny courthouse in as many years. Last year the nation's attention was focused on O.J. Simpson's civil case, which unfolded in the courtroom next door to the Markhasev trial. A year before that, the former football star's criminal case brought national attention to Los Angeles County courts.
On Tuesday, a dreary, drizzly day greeted reporters and forced camera operators and photographers to huddle under canopies and trees outside the courtroom, waiting for pool reporters to provide the day's news.
Although Markhasev's case has not so far generated as much attention as the Simpson trials, the prosecution's opening salvo could be a harbinger of more sensational disclosures.
"This is a gang case," said Deputy Dist. Atty. Anne Ingalls during a hearing on whether the jurors' names will be kept secret.
"He is a gang member. He is affiliated with the Mexican Mafia, and from the start we have made efforts to make sure they are safe," she said, referring to jurors.
Markhasev, sitting a few feet away in front of his mother and another person, smiled and shook his head as if in disbelief, while his lawyer, Deputy Alternate Public Defender Henry J. Hall, shouted his objections.
"That is the biggest bunch of nonsense I have ever heard," Hall said when he got his chance to respond. "I will not dignify . . . this with a reply," he said.
Early Disclosure Highly Unusual
Sources knowledgeable about gang activity told The Times on Tuesday that Markhasev has corresponded and associated with affiliates of the Mexican Mafia while incarcerated in County Jail, but he is not included on the Department of Corrections validated list of members of the Mexican Mafia. To be included, someone has to meet at least three of eight criteria, such as admitting membership, wearing gang tattoos or being photographed with known members.
Ingalls' disclosures about her case was highly unusual in that they were made even before the jury selection started. They were part of her unsuccessful effort to persuade Superior Court David D. Perez to keep the names of jurors secret.
She said secrecy was needed to keep them from harassment or possible harm by gang members.
Although some of Markhasev's school friends have said he associated with gang members, Ingalls' comments Tuesday mark the first time the prosecution has said it has evidence to prove that affiliation.
"We have kept track of his activities in jail," she said. "We have information that he is a made member of the Mexican Mafia."
Whether the jury will ever hear that information is uncertain. Other than to describe the trial as a "gang case," Ingalls gave no further details of how it might relate to the charges against Markhasev. And in keeping with a court-imposed gag order, she has consistently refused to discuss the case outside the courtroom.
Attorney Karen N. Fredericksen, representing the Los Angeles Times, urged the court to deny Ingalls' request, arguing that she failed to show any compelling reason and offered no evidence that the jurors would be subjected to harassment by gang members.
Perez, apparently unmoved by the prosecution's fears, said he would keep a juror's name secret only if requested and if he found sufficient reason to grant it.
At the beginning of the jury selection, Perez warned all the jurors that their questionnaires would be made public unless they had good reasons to keep them secret. Only one requested privacy, and Perez said he would consider his reasons later.
Despite the unexpected hearing Tuesday, jury selection moved swiftly, and is expected to be completed with the selection of 12 jurors and six alternates by the end of today and opening arguments are scheduled for Monday. Initially, the selection was expected to last at least three days.
The defense used 15 of its 20 opportunities--called peremptory challenges--to excuse prospective jurors without giving a reason. The prosecution used 12 challenges, and Perez dismissed an additional 23 without explanation.
Perez is doing all of the questioning himself, focusing on potential jurors' exposure to media accounts, their attitudes toward the prosecution and defense lawyers and whether they think a person is guilty because he has been arrested.
Questions About Selling to Tabloids
Giving a clue to a major issue in the trial, Perez asked a number of jurors what they thought about witnesses who may have sold their story to a tabloid.
The prosecution is expected to offer testimony from at least one such witness, who reportedly will say Markhasev enlisted his help and that of another friend in a search for a gun that was subsequently found by police and traced to Cosby's death.
The prosecution has said one of those companions has said he heard Markhasev say, "I shot the n-----. It's all over the news."
Many of the jurors responding to the question said they found such practices "distasteful" or "greedy," but that they would not let those opinions influence their consideration of the testimony.
"I don't think it has so much to do with truth-telling as it has to do with morals," one prospective juror said.
But another said: "It depends on when they sell."
He saw no problem with selling their story "if it's when the case is over and all is said and done."
Several jurors said they did not trust prosecutors, with one saying: "I think they just do whatever it takes to win."
However, several jurors expressed similar feelings about defense lawyers.
All of the jurors questioned so far said they have read very little about the case, and they all said they had never seen "The Cosby Show" or his current television program.
Times staff writer Robert Lopez contributed to this story.