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Endangering lives for a fair trial

By Anthony Paul Diaz

Anthony Paul Diaz

In an effort to give defendants fair trials, California courts often allow law enforcement agencies to unshackle, remove handcuffs or unsecure criminal defendants in court when a jury is present. Defendants may arrive to court in armored buses, chained or be housed in lockdown facilities before court starts, but once they get into a courtroom, all constraint is abandoned. Why? Because defense attorneys and defendants fear jurors will automatically assume guilt by seeing law enforcement do its job.

Take, for example, three high-profile celebrity cases in which defendants were detained in jail while their trials were going on — OJ Simpson, Scott Peterson and Robert Blake. The similarities of these three men, despite their criminal charges, were that they always were impeccably dressed and gave the appearance that they were free to move about in front of their juries. Did the jury really take the fancy suits and lack of restraints into consideration? Did it help them fairly evaluate the evidence presented by the state? Did the jurors really not know if the defendant was in custody or not, and does it matter? After all, one was acquitted, one was found guilty and the other defendant got a mixed verdict.

The events surrounding Atlanta, Chicago and now Los Angeles, where a man facing double homicide charges was lightly restrained in a San Fernando Court but was able to take a razor blade out of his mouth and slash his attorney in front of the jury, are giving this author pause as to the equity and safety being afforded to lawyers, judges, court staff, jury members and the public — in other words, are we endangering lives for a fair trial?

Recently, while listening to an address by Chief Justice Ronald George, I was appalled to hear that jurors in one California court are forced to sit on a stairwell used to transport prisoners to and from custody because there is insufficient room for them anywhere else.

It seems to me that the time has come to reevaluate the safety rules in and out of our courtrooms. With court funding at all-time lows, the need for security is even higher. I think we need to re-evaluate the liberties afforded to inmates and enforce stronger security regulations, even if someone has to face a jury in restraints. Let’s give jurors the credit they deserve. They already assume a tremendous amount of responsibility and are routinely called on to disregard evidence and stricken comments made in court.

Why can’t a judge simply instruct a jury that the fact that a defendant may or may not be handcuffed or escorted by agents should in no way influence or allow them to pre-judge the person standing trial? If we rely on jurors to do so many other things, we surely can rely on them to understand the need for security. This is a post 9/11 world we live in after all, and sadly the days of Perry Mason and the cordial, community courthouse are long gone.

A judge’s utmost concern in any criminal proceeding is always the “protection of public safety.” This standard is used in setting bail, determining sentences and protecting victims. The time has come to apply this protection to attorneys who come to work, to jurors who are summoned to court, for witnesses, victims, court reporters, the public and even judges.

Civil rights and maintaining a fair trial should always be protected but not at the expense of society. I hope the recent tragedies of Atlanta and Los Angeles make us re-evaluate our priorities and assure that those incidents were isolated.

• Los Angeles assistant city attorney Anthony Paul Diaz represents the California Young Lawyers Association on the State Bar Board of Governors.

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