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Grim Sleeper serial killings: Repeatedly delayed trial is set for Oct. 14

Grim Sleeper serial killings: Repeatedly delayed trial is set for Oct. 14
Lonnie Franklin Jr., who authorities say is the Grim Sleeper serial killer, appears in court Monday for a pretrial hearing. His trial, which has been repeatedly postponed, is set to start inDecember. (Al Seib / Los Angeles Times)

More than five years after authorities charged the man they claim is the so-called Grim Sleeper serial killer, the court case involving the killings of 10 women in South L.A. has devolved into this: eye rolls, sighs and laughter.

Amid repeated delays in the start of the trial, sniping between attorneys for the prosecution and defense took center stage Monday, provoking some relatives of slain victims to laugh aloud as they watched the courtroom squabbling.

One of the lead prosecutors accused a defense attorney of "gamesmanship," alleging that he intended to ambush the prosecution with new information during the upcoming trial.

The defense lawyer, Seymour Amster, shot back by accusing the prosecutor of engaging in personal attacks, saying time would show who really was "hiding the ball."

"Well, apparently there's no love lost between you," Superior Court Judge Kathleen Kennedy said to the lawyers at one point.

"I would stipulate to that," Amster cut in.

"And I would agree with counsel for the first time," the prosecutor, Deputy Dist. Atty. Beth Silverman said.

"Well, at least we can agree on something," Amster responded.

When the dust settled, the judge postponed the trial once again — from Sept. 9 to Oct. 14 — but vowed she would not put off the case endlessly.

The decision marked the latest delay in a case that has dragged on despite pleas from the relatives of the victims. Some tearfully complained to the judge earlier this year about anxiety and nightmares they were experiencing as they awaited the trial of Lonnie Franklin Jr., who could face execution if convicted.

Though murder cases often take years to reach trial, particularly when the death penalty is at stake, many of the victims' relatives lay the blame on Amster.

"He turned it into a circus for a long time," said Donnell Alexander, whose sister, Alicia Alexander, was killed in 1988 and is believed to be the eighth victim of the Grim Sleeper. "Finally the judge put her foot down."

Margaret Prescod, who founded an organization 24 years ago to press for a more aggressive response by law enforcement to the killings, called Monday's hearing "surreal."

"It's been outrageous that the defense has dragged this on for as long as it has. It's been very difficult on the families, it's been very difficult on the community," Prescod said.

Outside court, Amster defended his handling of the case and blamed the prosecution for delays after a defense expert reported the discovery of genetic material at two of the crime scenes matching DNA from convicted serial killer Chester Turner.

"At all times we will be professional on our side," he said.

During Monday's hearing, Franklin, dressed in orange jail scrubs, said only that he didn't object to a later trial.

Franklin, 62, faces 10 counts of murder and one of attempted murder. He has pleaded not guilty.

Authorities say the Grim Sleeper preyed on poor and vulnerable girls and women whose deaths spanned more than two decades beginning in 1985. Many of those killed were found along a South L.A. corridor straddling Western Avenue.

Prosecutors contend that ballistics evidence and DNA link Franklin to the crimes. Though Franklin is accused of killing 10 women, investigators have said they believe he is responsible for more slayings.

Franklin's arrest in 2010 closed one chapter in the investigation into the Grim Sleeper, but the case is far from wrapping up in court.

Silverman and Amster butted heads throughout Monday's hearing.

Silverman criticized the defense lawyer for failing to turn over some material from his case, saying the prosecution wouldn't be prepared if the judge kept the Sept. 9 trial date.

"I understand what counsel's suggestion is, that we go to trial and be ambushed by him," Silverman said. "This is a game. This is pure gamesmanship."

While the judge acknowledged that she also believed there was some gamesmanship going on, she also admonished the prosecutor.

"I also think that you're taking the bait hook, line and sinker," Kennedy told her. "What you should do is call his bluff."

"Well, that's your opinion. I don't go to trial unprepared, especially not on a case like this," Silverman snapped, later cutting off the judge as she spoke.

The judge later said she was sure Silverman was "as prepared, or more prepared, than anybody walking the planet" to try the case.

Kennedy appeared to lose her patience at times with both attorneys, occasionally rolling her eyes or sighing.

Amster — who stood for a majority of the hearing — also raised his voice and cut off Silverman during the hearing. He said he had not been able to turn over everything the prosecution is asking for because he has not received all the reports from the defense's expert witnesses.

"The record will be clear at the end of the day as to who is doing the ambush, who is hiding the ball, when this trial is over," Amster said. "Because we are comfortable to know it won't be us."

Silverman told the judge that it wasn't the prosecutor but Kennedy who was the one falling into the defense attorney's trap.

"I'm not in anybody's trap," the judge shot back.

Kennedy eventually set an Aug. 31 deadline for Amster to turn over reports from experts to the prosecution, a decision that drew claps from a few relatives of victims.

"Get on," one man called out from the audience.

As the hearing wound down, the judge considered a new date for the trial.

"I'd like to go to trial the first week of November," Amster suggested.

"I'd like to go to trial on this two or three years ago," Kennedy responded.

Los Angeles Times staff writer Marisa Gerber contributed to this report.

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