KEY TACTIC IN HATE-CRIME CASE ASSAILED
With closing arguments set to begin today, the case against 10 Long Beach youths accused of beating three white women Halloween night hinges almost entirely on identifications made in a Ralphs parking lot the night of the attack.
In a procedure known as a field show-up, police told the victims and a reputed witness that the youths -- nine girls and a boy, ages 12 to 17 -- were suspects and asked if they recognized them from the melee. In several subsequent police interviews, witnesses were never asked to pick the juveniles out of a lineup that included non-suspects: a means to test their memory that experts say is a standard and crucial procedure. Nor were they asked to identify them in open court.
Long Beach Police Cmdr. Jeffry Johnson said the field show-up is the most accurate form of identification in a case like this. “Especially when you talk about numerous suspects, you have to go with immediate recollection,” he said.
But experts say field show-ups are inherently fallible and rarely used in isolation.
“I can’t remember ever seeing a case go to trial in which the only identification is a field show-up,” said Kathy Pezdek, a professor at Claremont Graduate University and expert witness in the area of eyewitness identification, in an interview. “It’s extremely unusual.”
Much of what has occurred in the Long Beach courtroom of Judge Gibson W. Lee, however, is unusual. The mild-mannered jurist has let attorneys deliver long fiery speeches, make objection after objection that all but stopped the testimony and ignore his orders to stick to the facts of the case.
Deputy Dist. Atty. Andrea Bouas has accused the youths of having gang connections, of orchestrating the destruction of a witness’ car, of calling the witness “a stupid bitch” outside of court to intimidate her. None of Bouas’ accusations are based on evidence in the case, and they normally would have been heard out of the presence of a jury.
But the Long Beach hate-crime case highlights a critical -- and many experts say troublesome -- difference between adult and juvenile court: There are no juries in juvenile court; a judge decides the minors’ fate.
“A jury is the great equalizer,” said Cyn Yamashiro, a professor at Loyola Law School and director of its Center for Juvenile Law and Policy. “It is the true challenge to the people’s case. That is the component of due process that is absent in the juvenile system.”
The public doesn’t often see the juvenile system at work, because the proceedings are usually closed. In this case, Lee opened the doors based on the seriousness of the allegations: All 10 are charged with assault with intent to cause great bodily injury, and eight face hate-crime sentencing enhancements.
The result is a glimpse into how justice is administered for children that raises questions about whether they would get a fairer trial in adult court.
Seven of the defendants have court-appointed attorneys, who are paid a flat rate of $325 to try the entire case, now in its seventh week. Court-appointed attorneys in adult court are paid an hourly rate of $68 to $91.
The Long Beach minors, none of whom have criminal records, have been in custody since Halloween, with no chance for bail.
The first day of trial, Nov. 28, Deputy Public Defender Stephanie Sauter voiced concern that the youths could not get a fair trial in Long Beach because of heated local press coverage.
Lee -- a judge for 21 years with deep ties to the city, where he grew up and his father practiced law for 50 years -- denied her motion for a change of venue. He indicated that public pressure would not influence him.
From the get-go, the prosecution has depicted the assault as a vicious, unprovoked attack motivated by racial hatred:
Three young white women -- Loren Hyman, 21; Laura Schneider, 19; and Michelle Smith, 19 -- were trick-or-treating on a street known for its Halloween displays, when a crowd of 30 or more black youths began shouting racial epithets and pelting them with pieces of fruit. The women tried to get away, but the crowd set upon them, severely beating all three before a good Samaritan rescued them, Bouas has argued.
But the version of events that emerged in court was messier.
The good Samaritan, Marice Huff, testified that the attack began when a boy tried to trip Hyman and she turned around and punched or slapped one of the black girls in the face. Schneider and seven of the minors independently told the same story to police. Huff also said he saw the white women fighting back and holding their own.
Although Hyman testified that she had not been drinking that night, the doctor who treated her testified that she had. Although she said most of the assailants were girls, a neighbor who called 911 in the presence of the victims described the culprits as 10 or 12 “black men.”
And although witnesses testified that they heard someone yell racial slurs, no one could say who.
Undisputed is a key piece of circumstantial evidence -- Hyman’s cellphone, knocked from her hand during the attack and later recovered from the car of one of the defendants -- as well as the victims’ injuries. Hyman suffered a broken nose, along with what physicians call a tripod fracture: a cracking of the cheekbone and two paper-thin bones around the eye. Schneider may have suffered a concussion, a doctor testified. There was no testimony of injuries to Smith.
For the field identifications, the three victims and an 18-year-old woman, Kiana Alford, who said she had witnessed the attack, were driven separately to the parking lot where the minors were detained.
Alford would testify later that officers told her, ‘We caught the people who did this,’ and that she felt it was her responsibility to identify them.
Hyman identified four of the minors as attackers. Schneider identified three, Smith none and Alford eight. Only Hyman and Alford were called to testify.
Pezdek, the eyewitness identification expert, said it is highly unlikely that a witness could make out what numerous individuals did in a mob, even more so at night and at a distance. “To say in this melee there are eight people who did this and that is kind of silly,” she said.
On the stand, Alford first gave a cinematic account of the attack. But under cross-examination, she said that she saw the fight as she drove away, looking over her shoulder and in the rearview mirror, and that the distance -- up to 175 feet -- and darkness made it impossible to pick out individuals.
The day after Alford stepped down, police moved to shore up the case with more physical evidence. Officers went to Los Padrinos Juvenile Hall to look at the minors’ clothes, kept in a locker since Halloween night.
Analysts found bloodstains on the jeans of a 16-year-old girl. A week later, Bouas told the court in a closed hearing that a DNA analysis showed the blood was from Hyman. But the judge barred the evidence, saying presenting it would take too long.
Police Cmdr. Johnson said investigators had scrambled to do everything they could, given the time crunch.
“Normally, between the time of the arrest and the trial, you have months,” he said. “We had two weeks.”
In the end, the prosecution’s strongest witness was Hyman, who testified that she and her friends were simply walking by when a group of black youths began to taunt them, then yelled slurs and pelted them with small pumpkins. Schneider was pulled by the hair into the mob and hit with a skateboard by a male, Hyman testified. As she went to help her friend, the crowd -- most of them girls -- began to pummel her too, she said.
In a bid to undermine the prosecution’s case, the defense played the 911 tapes that described the attackers as male and called two witnesses: Lineshia Hill, who was with Alford that night and says they arrived after the fight was over, and a defendant, Anthony Ross, now 18.
Ross testified calmly that, sitting in a car just feet away, he saw a male he didn’t know kick Hyman in the back of the leg. She then slapped his sister in the face, he said, and a group of males jumped in and started beating the women. Ross said he leapt out of the car when a boy hit the woman with the skateboard and that he ripped the board from the boy’s hands.
After the prosecution rested its case, Lee gave some indication he believed that its evidence, taken alone, was sufficient.
Tom Harmon, the attorney for a girl who turned 12 the night before the attack, argued that the only evidence against her specifically was Alford’s statement that she saw her “throwing newspapers around at the girls,” an observation she made from 300 feet away.
Bouas did not dispute Harmon, but Lee swiftly denied Harmon’s motion to dismiss the case against the girl.