Big City Justice In A Down Home Courtroom

It's voir dire, the procedure that weeds out biased prospective jurors before the trial starts. Elsewhere, this is usually a cut-and-dried, tedious ordeal, with everyone answering the same rote questions.

Hollywood Municipal Court, however, is an unusual court, and we've got an unusual judge. The woman to my left in the jury box, No. 1, is giving an eloquent argument in favor of legalizing prostitution. I'm No. 2, next, and I realize I've never even thought about the issue. Luckily, the judge asks me instead if I've ever witnessed what I thought might be solicitation for prostitution. Say, an overly made-up, miniskirted girl leaning into passing cars.

I say "probably," and Judge Stephen A. Marcus proceeds to lecture about how appearances can be deceiving. That's for sure. The tall redhead at the defendant's table, with masses of curls and a long, stylish beige skirt slit way up the side, is not the defendant. She's the public defender, whom I recognize from a trial last week. So the woman at her side must be the defendant. In her navy suit and simple white blouse, she looks more like, well, a lawyer.

I don't even know the turf very well, let alone the players. This is a part of town that I avoid en my drive home from work. But in Los Angeles, if you get a jury summons you serve. Not only do journalists serve but also attorneys, police officers, and even judges. Barring a personal hardship you serve, and the key word is "personal." Don't bother to argue that work demands your presence. As Judge Wapner (no, not the Judge Wapner of People's Court fame, but his son, Fred) put it, on my 10th and last day, in deciding which people to retain for extra jury service: "Work is not a hardship."

While big-city courthouses are usually mammoth granite structures, this one reminded me of those in town squares of the county seats around where I grew up in Kansas. It's only two floors, screened by trees, and set back from Hollywood Boulevard so that I'd never even noticed it before.

But it is in a neighborhood, and a seedy one at that. Overflow parking is behind the Salvation Army tabernacle next door. Squeamish jurors often arrive an hour early to nab the best spots, leaving the rest of us a long parade past the eating, sleeping, smoking, sometimes panhandling homeless who populate the environs. Once inside, however, the rural, almost sleepy feeling returns. It's partly because justice is personal here, with one judge handling each case from start to finish. And if the defendants come back on another offense, they'll see the same judge again. Downtown in the big courthouse, a defendant can see three judges between booking and sentencing.

QUICK PICK. For those jurors who draw Judge Marcus, that down-home feeling is partly because of his folksy, nonthreatening style. His wife supplies free coffee for the jury room, since the county can't afford to. Two weeks after I had finished, there was a note in the mail from Marcus thanking me for the time I devoted to jury duty. And, no, it's not an elected post.

But back to Alexandra, the defendant's professional name. Voir dire is moving amazingly fast. That's because California voters last year endorsed Proposition 115, which takes the questioning of prospective jurors out of the hands of lawyers. Marcus can empanel a jury in slightly over an hour. It used to take at least a day.

Unlike some other California judges, Marcus still allows lawyers to ask some questions if they feel the need. This public defender often does and has interrupted voir dire twice with requests to approach the bench, the second time to challenge the stereotyping of all prostitutes as women. But the attorneys make few peremptory challenges, so we're sworn in and dismissed early for lunch.

The trial starts that afternoon with the testimony of the officer who arrested 19-year-old Alexandra, an employee of an "in-call, out-call" service. The issue is exactly what kind of service that is. Detective Michael K. Kearney says it's a prostitution service. Alexandra will say it's a massage service. Kearney describes answering a newspaper ad, setting up a date, renting a motel room, and other events leading to Alexandra's arrest. By the time all the sordid allegations are told, it's 3 p.m., and we are dismissed.

On the third day of Alexandra's trial, she changes her plea to guilty. A good thing, too. Coming back from lunch at Denny's, several of us notice her coming back from lunch, too. The difference is that we are on foot, while she slides out of a white stretch limo. Although we had pledged that appearances don't count, they do: The limo could have influenced us to find her guilty. Our verdict would have sent her to jail. Now, she'll do only community service, but Marcus later tells me that first-time offenders typically fail to show up for community service and end up in jail anyway.

TRIALS AND TRIBULATIONS. Another day, another trial. Boris, a Russian-immigrant cabbie, has been arrested for picking up a fare in Los Angeles without holding a City of Los Angeles franchise. We wonder why he has insisted on a full jury trial, which will surely cost him more than the $350 fine he faces. It seems a waste of our time and the court system's limited resources, but this is America. Everybody has the right to a trial.

We end up a hung jury, unable to convict because one of us won't budge. The holdout is a personal-injury lawyer who thinks he knows the law better than the judge, some of us decide later. But as we rehash the case, mostly we joke about the stereotype of a cabdriver who can't speak English: The entire trialwas translated into Russian for thedefendant.

My final trial is an assault case in which the jury reaches a guilty verdict in less than five minutes. So much for the chance to finish my Jack Higgins paperback. Many big-city prospective jurors remain just that: prospective, until they are eventually dismissed. Only a fraction are ever seated on a jury, let alone three. But in this court, jurors don't get much of a chance to catch up on their reading.

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