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MURDER, MAYHEM DRIVE A BOOMING INDUSTRY AT L.A. COURTHOUSE

By Joel Achenbach
Washington Post Staff Writer

LOS ANGELES -- No one calls it a courthouse, this place where they are holding the trial of the century. It's the Criminal Courts Building, or sometimes just "the CCB." A typical courthouse is a lofty neo-Classical temple, with fluted columns and gargoyles and quotations about "JVSTICE" chiseled into the facade; the CCB is a modern glass-and-concrete box, the exterior a grid of rectangles, as though the architect was inspired by graph paper, or maybe a chart of the L.A. crime rate.

The building handles 18,000 felony cases a year. It is for one of those cases that satellite dishes are propped on the 12th floor ledge, aimed at the heavens. Nothing like the O.J. Simpson trial has ever happened here, at least in terms of publicity. But the crime itself -- murder, two counts -- is a routine matter, another day at the office. Mayhem is a local industry, recession-proof. Business in the CCB is awfully good.

Stray from the Simpson trial and you might stumble upon the karate teacher accused of killing his assistant; the gang member who said he had no choice but to empty his gun into his close friend; the elderly man who buried his wife under the house and told his children he didn't know where she was -- until the dog dug her up.

There is no way to keep track of it all. People come, people go, an endless stream of miscreants, victims, bailiffs. The building is a machine, a whirring punishment device, a tragedy processor.

"I was very depressed. I was sending a whole lot of people to prison and they were just blurs in front of me," says former Superior Court judge Jack Tenner, who worked in the CCB for 10 years. "I wouldn't recognize them if I saw them five minutes later."

The front door starts to get crowded around 8 a.m. Everyone must go through a magnetometer, and purses and briefcases are X-rayed. Even people in wheelchairs are frisked. If one of O.J. Simpson's attorneys shows up there's a mad scramble, cameras converging. The camera crews have been bivouacked since June, lining the path from the sidewalk to the door -- the gantlet is what they call it. Tuesday the crews brought in pots and chafing dishes and had a turkey feast just to the right of the gantlet.

O.J. Simpson is driven into the basement every morning in a sheriff's van. He takes an elevator to the 8th floor. When he is summoned to court he takes the stairs to the 9th floor, to "Department 103," the courtroom of Superior Court Judge Lance A. Ito. Ito will have already emerged from a door behind the bench where he has offices. The attorneys enter the courtroom from the main hall, the door guarded by a muscular female sheriff's deputy. The courtroom is a kind of intersection, everyone coming into it from a different space, transported by different sets of elevators.

There are other courthouses in Los Angeles, but the CCB is the most important, the guts of the largest criminal justice jurisdiction in the nation. New York City has separate district attorneys for each borough. Washington's criminal justice bureaucracy is likewise divided between the District and the surrounding cities and counties. But every felony in every community within sprawling Los Angeles County is handled by the office of District Attorney Gil Garcetti, headquartered on the 18th floor.

Below him are 60 courtrooms. So many accused persons come through the building each day that four full floors are needed for locking them up, which is why the public elevators do not stop on the 4th, 8th, 10th or 14th floors.

The other day, while the Simpson lawyers were carefully screening potential alternate jurors, a young deputy D.A. named Craig Hum went to a hearing regarding a certain Charles Jones. Hum is part of a division called Hardcore Gangs. Right now he's juggling 18 cases, all murders. Charles Jones was seeking a new trial after a murder conviction. Jones had tried to steal a car, and the car's owner objected. Jones shot and killed him. The victim's young son watched the whole thing from a few feet away. The name of the slain man?

"I don't remember his name. It's sad. I can't remember his name," said Hum. "A victim's family will call up and say, it's the so-and-so case, and I don't remember who it is. We don't remember cases by victims."

This past week there were a half dozen murder trials in the CCB. Other than Simpson, two were tracked by the D.A.'s media relations department as being potentially of some local media interest.

One was the case of Henry Castorena, a 65-year-old a tow truck operator whose marriage of 42 years ended the night he dragged his wife Hortensia's body into the crawl space under his house and buried it.

Murder, said the prosecution.

Panic, said the defense.

Castorena took the stand, a gray man in a brown pullover sweater, and testified that he and his wife had had an argument one night. She thought he had been flirting too much with a waitress, and that his $5 tip was extravagant. They fought, a hand-to-hand struggle in the bedroom. She just suddenly died, he said. Collapsed.

"He panicked," says his attorney. Hortensia Castorena was stiff by the time he managed to get her into the hole, folded up in a sitting position, the defendant testified.

Two months later the family dog, Cisco, dug up the decomposed body. The coroner couldn't establish a cause of death because there wasn't enough tissue.

"What were you thinking about when you were digging that hole?" the prosecutor asked.

"My mind was just in a rut," Castorena said.

"How deep was the hole?"

"I didn't measure it, I just dug it until I thought the body would fit there."

The prosecutor asked what he did when he finished digging.

"I put her in the burial site."

"The hole?"

"Yes."

The jury's still out.

Castorena could face life in prison. His attorney is Casey Lilienfeld, an assistant public defender who is currently handling 50 felony cases, four of them murders. Lilienfeld laughs at the Simpson case. "It's a caricature of the system," he says. "Every little thing that each side does gets scrutinized." He also notes that the county jail is closed on Fridays, so he can't visit his clients, "but it's open for O.J. Simpson's lawyers."

The other case of possible media interest involved Stuart Edward Milburn, a martial arts instructor for Los Angeles's beautiful people. He was accused of killing Veronica Estrada, his assistant instructor, whose body was found on a hillside, dumped from a mountain road. The judge in that case dismissed the jury and started picking a new one after determining that the defense had used its peremptory challenges to strike every Latino woman in the jury pool.

Three other murder cases didn't make the media list; they were just routine killings. Homicide, straight and simple, is not considered interesting in a city this big and violent; it's just a fact of life, like smog and earthquakes. In a well-armed, angry society, murder requires no great cunning. For all their catastrophic effect, many murders seem banal. They're impulsive, meaningless, a verbal curse backed with firepower.

On the 15th floor, Damon Hill, 22, was on trial for shooting a friend, Curtis Brown, a fellow member of the 67th Street Hustlers. Hill said he was defending himself. The shooting resulted from an argument between two other friends. The shooter and the victim weren't even involved initially. Hill sided with one friend while Brown sided with another. Brown went and got a gun and approached Hill. Hill shot him, Brown fell, Hill kept firing.

Hill was calm when he took the witness stand. He looked tired and sad. He said he only remembered the first shot. "It was very quick. Seconds." He recalled being scared when he talked to detectives. He said, "I was upset about having to kill a friend."

The jury's out in that one too.

Juan Noyola was another 22-year-old on trial. He bumped into someone at the Latin Lover Bar -- or got bumped. The other man was Mariano Sandoval. Noyola and Sandoval argued. Noyola went to a nearby house, got a gun, then encountered Sandoval outside the bar. Noyola shot him four times. He said it was in self-defense, that Sandoval had a gun. The case has taken two years to get to trial.

Then there was the Ronald Bratton case. Bratton testified that one night he went home, walked past his wife without noticing her, went into his bedroom and knocked back two vodkas. He got a gun, went downstairs and sat in his car. He wasn't in a bad mood, he said. No temper. He was calm. "Remember, the calmness comes from the alcohol, it's a relaxant," he testified.

A street preacher named Humberto Baca was walking past. Baca approached Bratton. Bratton says Baca got hysterical when he found out that Bratton was a Muslim. Bratton says he felt menaced by the preacher. The preacher had a big flashlight in his waistband. Bratton thought the preacher was trying to pull out the flashlight and simultaneously grab for Bratton's gun. They struggled. Baca died with a bullet hole in the center of his forehead.

That jury will resume deliberating after the Thanksgiving break. There are five possible verdicts: Murder one, murder two, voluntary manslaughter, involuntary manslaughter or not guilty.

Most of these cases have one thing in common: The defendants admit they were there, that they saw the person die. But they claim their actions were justified or excusable. That is not the defense being offered in the courtroom of Judge Lance Ito.

Most judges have a full calendar of cases, running through a string of felonies every morning before getting down to whatever trial is at hand. But Simpson's is what they call a Long Cause case. Judge Ito has nothing else to contend with, a clear docket but for Simpson. The Heidi Fleiss trial down the hall is also Long Cause. All the Long Cause cases are tried on the 9th floor, the entrance of which has another magnetometer and many alert guards.

A typical murder trial will last a week or two. Jury selection for Simpson has already taken two months and is not finished. As part of the aberrance of the Simpson case there will be not only 12 regular jurors but 15 alternates, all 27 carefully scrutinized for any hint of bias, their backgrounds researched by both sides, their words analyzed by professional jury consultants. Last week one woman, a postal employee, said she would love to be on the jury even if it meant being sequestered for months, because "any way I could get out of working for the post office, I'll do it."

In almost every trial a single court reporter sits in front of the judge and takes down what everyone is saying. But Ito has two court reporters taking turns. Ito, the attorneys and their consultants all have laptop computers in front of them; the transcript of the trial immediately flashes on the screen. The courtroom is wired.

The Simpson case features seven prosecutors and at least nine defense attorneys, many of them in the courtroom at any given moment. Other murder cases usually have a lone prosecutor and a lone public defender. "It's hard to compare the O.J. case to what we do routinely," says prosecutor Jim Falco. "There's no comparison." All those motions in the Simpson case make other defendants envious, he said. "Defendants feel like they've been slighted based on what they see going on with Simpson."

Gil Garcetti, the district attorney, has 900 prosecutors. He says he's understaffed. Because of the new three-strikes law he's managed to get funding for about 45 more prosecutors. But the new law is troublesome. In one courtroom in the CCB a man is being tried for trying to break into a hardware store. He was seen trying to pry open a metal security gate. He faces 25 years to life in prison because he's a career criminal. It's his seventh strike if convicted.

One of Garcetti's ace deputies is Pat Dixon, a man whose office looks like a storage room for files, only more disorganized. The other day he had to drive out to the San Fernando Valley to talk to a man whose son had been murdered. The son, Jason Strom, was from Minnesota. As Dixon tells the story, the son had made some mistakes. He got lost and took the wrong freeway exit. At a pay phone someone robbed him. The son chased down the robber. Another mistake. The robber pulled a knife and stabbed him. Jason Strom bled to death on Main Street.

Dixon had to explain to the father that a conviction wasn't a certainty. In cases like these it is often hard to find witnesses, at least any who would seem credible in court.

"It's just one tragedy after another," Dixon said. He has to keep his distance emotionally. He's got another case in which a group of thieves were doing "follow-home" robberies. They robbed one man and, in his fear, he backed up into his swimming pool and drowned. On another day an Asian American woman who didn't speak English well failed to understand the robbers' instructions to hand over her money. She fell to her knees and prayed. One of the robbers didn't care for that; he put a bullet in her head. The D.A.'s office got one of the robbers to turn state's evidence.

Through it all, lawyers here try to keep their sense of humor. What people see in the Simpson case is typical: There is joking in the courtroom. Even a murder case has levity. One time Pat Dixon was questioning a witness in a death penalty murder case.

"What's the name of the gang you belong to?"

"The Executioners."

"Are you an active member?"

"I'm a Three-Star Executioner."

"What does that mean?"

"It means three times I went out and done what they wanted me to do. It makes me a Three-Star General."

"What kinds of things would the Executioners have you do?"

"I don't think that's relevant to these proceedings."

"Well, ordinarily, we let Her Honor decide that, but since you're a Three-Star General, I guess we'll let you make the call."

Sometimes Garcetti just pops into a courtroom to see what's going on. One day he came across a case with two juries, six defendants, two of whom faced the death penalty, and five defense attorneys. "Against all of this, we have one deputy D.A. All by herself," says Garcetti. She had no assistant, no paralegal, no investigator. Garcetti says he found out that the defendants were accused of burning a man alive. He hadn't even been aware of the case. There's so much mayhem in Los Angeles County that Garcetti can't keep track of every murder by immolation.

Garcetti is a politician as well as a prosecutor, so he puts a positive, hopeful spin on the situation. Looking out his window across the teeming metropolis toward the San Gabriel Mountains, he says he knows the "soul" of Los Angeles: "The soul is one of hope, one of involvement, one of doing something." Progress in the fight against crime, he says, "means that the innocent are protected and the guilty -- their acts are properly addressed." As though "punished" would be too naive a word.

Garcetti complains about how many prosecutors he has been forced to use in the Simpson trial. "I do not have a separate budget for the Simpson case," he said last week. "That means I have to take them from handling other cases."

There's no outrage in his voice, however. That the Simpson case is an elite trial is a given. People understand that some cases are big, some not. Some defendants have money, fine lawyers, the ability to fight. Others have a public defender, a week in court and maybe a one-way ticket to San Quentin.


© 1994 The Washington Post Company