Seconds after taking the lectern during oral arguments in the California Supreme Court today, Wham! Oakland attorney A. Charles Dell’Ario was blindsided.
By Justice Ming Chin, who asked him to distinguish a case he’d never heard of. T’wasn’t cited in his brief nor in Deputy DA Arthur Beever’s.
Fortunately for Dell’Ario, Chin let the question drop and he rallied to present a strong argument about why juries are prejudiced against criminal defendants when trial judges station deputies directly next to the defendants while they testify on the witness stand.
Does anyone notice the guy with the gun? After the jump ...
“The deployment of security personnel can be inherently prejudicial,” the Dell’Ario & LeBoeuf partner argued. The overall issue, by the way, isn’t clear cut. While the San Francisco appellate panel that heard Stevens’ case ruled 2-1 in 2007 that the trial judge hadn’t erred by placing a deputy next to the defendant, another panel of the same court ruled 2-1 last month that a Contra Costa County judge shouldn’t have let an armed deputy stand behind a man accused of assaulting a woman friend. There were differing opinions during today’s argument about whether the bailiff beside Stevens was armed.
Justice Joyce Kennard seemed to buy into Dell'Ario's arguments, as did possibly Justice Carlos Moreno. The placement of a deputy next to Lorenzo Stevens, Dell’Ario’s client, could convey the message he was dangerous, Kennard said.
Stevens was sentenced to more than 10 years in state prison after Alameda County jurors found him guilty of raping — and providing drugs to — his teenage daughter. The testimony was “he said, she said,” Dell’Ario pointed out, with Stevens protesting his innocence and with no record that he presented a courtroom risk.
Dell’Ario argued that the deployment of a deputy four or five feet from a testifying defendant had been upheld by the California Supreme Court in 2003’s People v. Marks, 31 Cal.4th 197, because the judge had shown a “manifest need” for extra security.
“That is not this case, and that’s why Marks is not controlling,” Dell’Ario said.
Good try. But it seemed like a majority of the court disagreed.
Justice Carol Corrigan led the charge by implying that having a deputy near the witness stand isn’t that bad — and there are more prejudicial moves a judge could’ve made.
“Are you saying there’s no qualitative difference,” she asked, “between sitting on the witness stand with a stun vest on and with officer Bliffstick sitting next to you?”
A ruling’s due in 90 days.
— Mike McKee