By Bill Collins:
Sandra P. Sandra was an African-American woman, 32 years old, divorced and mother of a five-year-old little girl. She worked at North Hollywood Federal Savings as Chief Teller, working her way from an assistant teller to the top with hard work and a lot of personal sacrifice. She frequently stayed late, mentored new employees, and had an excellent reputation with co-workers.
Sandy was charged with embezzling $25,000 from her own "cash box."
Sandy came to our interview looking like a professional business woman. Composed and soft spoken.
“I did not do this, Mr. Collins!” she stated adamantly.
Many clients told me this at our first interview—“I didn’t do it.” Frequently, it wasn't the truth. But this time, I believed her. There was only one problem—this was one of my first felonies. The pressure of representing an innocent defendant is exponentially greater than one you believed to be guilty. As a Public Defender, most clients were of the latter variety.
"If you didn’t do it, how do you think this happened?" I asked.
"I really don’t know, but the box is not very secure," said Sandy.
"Does it have a lock? And do you have a key?" Sandy answer "yes" to both. "How many keys are there?" I asked.
"As far as I know . . . only one, mine."
"Sandy, the report from a Mr. George, the Vice President in charge of security, states that you made a tape-recorded confession, and you failed a polygraph. Is that true?"
"Yes, I failed the poly because they asked me if I'd ever taken money from the bank. Years ago, I found a twenty dollar bill on the bank floor near closing time. I put it in my purse and forgot I had done it."
"Okay," I said. "I believe you, Sandy. The results of the poly aren’t admissible, but we have to explain these two inconsistencies." She nodded that she understood. "What was the box like?" I continued. "Describe it."
"It was metal. Twelve inches by about eight inches. It had a lock built into the box. It was a tiny lock. It was more like a locket you might find on a diary."
"Okay," I said. "I’ll go over and take a look at it. Tell me about the tape-recorded confession."
"Mr. George told me that if I didn’t confess I would be convicted and that my daughter would be placed in McClaren Hall."
At this point, Sandy lost her composure and began to cry. This was authentic, no acting. If she did the same at trial, it would be very powerful. McClaren Hall was a Los Angeles County temporary placement facility for abused and/or abandoned children or children whose parent or parents were in custody. It was a horrible place, and no parent would want this for their child.
I ended the interview and asked Sandy if any of her co-workers could be helpful. She said she would ask.
I called the “property room” of the Van Nuys Branch L.A.P.D. The box was pretty much as Sandy described it. A little bit bigger, but I was focused on the lock, which looked incredibly vulnerable. I copied the make, model number, and manufacturer and bought an exact duplicate. I then went looking for a locksmith. I found one on Van Nuys Boulevard—walking distance from the Courthouse.
Mr. Watson was the proprietor. I showed him the box and asked if he could pick the lock and open the box. He got a hairpin and within seconds the box popped opened.
"Jeez," I said. "Could you do that again?"
He proceeded to do it—not just once, but ten times in a row, no misses. I told Mr. Watson that I needed him in court—that I would subpoena him if I had to but that he was entitled to expert witness fees for his time. I left, feeling that at least I had some evidence that a key wasn’t necessary.
Over the next couple of weeks, I received phone calls from co-workers of Sandy telling me how Mr.George had bragged to them about how he had gotten a confession from Sandy by using the McClaren Hall threat. There were at least three women who were independently informed by George about this tactic.
The case of The People Of California vs. Sandra P. was sent to Department “S.” This was the Courtroom of Armand Arabian, a judge I knew from my misdemeanor court days. These days, we were both trying felonies—the “Big Leagues” of Criminal Law practice. Defendants who lost at this level frequently were sentenced to State Prison.
Armand was a short, bald man who had a little bit of a "small man" complex, but he was very bright, knew the law, and had always given me a fair trial. He had distinguished himself in the Rincon-Pineda case—a brutal rape case. At the time, there was a jury instruction that read
(paraphrasing) “charges of rape are easily made and difficult to defend against. You should view the evidence with caution.“ This cautionary instruction had been read to juries for at least 100 years. Armand had refused to read it. He knew the case would go to the California Supreme Court. It was a gutsy move, and also politically very smart. “Women's Rights” were in the forefront of contemporary social movements at that time. The Supreme Court stated that the trial judge was right. The cautionary section of the jury instruction was henceforth omitted in rape trials in the State of California from that point on. His appointment to the California Supreme Court years later was in large part due to Arabian’s decision to refuse to give the cautionary instruction.
On the morning of trial, the judge called for the D.A. and I to come into chambers to discuss any possible settlement, meaning a plea. I knew there wasn’t going to be a plea, but this ritual was routine. Bob Cohen was the District Attorney. He was a honest guy with whom I had a very good relationship. We sat down, and Bob outlined his case—the box, the key, the tape-recorded confession. He then made an offer. If Sandy would plead guilty to embezzlement, imposition of sentence would be suspended. Formal Probation for three years. County Jail lid. This meant that as a condition of probation, she could be required to serve up to one year in the county jail.
As he finished his summary, he was called back into the courtroom. Technically, no discussion regarding the case was to take place out of the presence of counsel. But Armand considered this as only a “suggestion.“
"How do you expect to win with her taped-recorded confession in evidence?" he asked.
"We think it was coerced," I responded without going into detail.
With that, the judge got up from his chair and pulled a silver-plated semi-automatic handgun from his belt holster and walked to a window of his 7th floor chambers. He pointed the gun at a man walking down the street.
“I bet I could pick that guy off from here,” he said calmly.
I had nothing. Just let me outta here. Armand reminded me that if I lost, all options were on the table. I took that to mean that State Prison was on the table. The judge resumed his seat.
"I’ll tell you what," he said jokingly, "if you win this one, you and I will go into private practice together.”
Each judge had a way of pressuring defense counsel to capitulate. He wanted me to scare the hell out of my client with his threats. I did have an obligation to convey the substance of the judge's comments, which I did, but Sandy wasn’t going to plead in any event. If convicted, her future in the banking industry would be over—and lots of luck finding a job with a felony embezzlement on your record—that stays for life.
The trial began.
Mr. George was the first witness and was designated as the “investigating officer“ over my objection. The significance of this was that he got to sit at the counsel table. He was not excluded from the courtroom, though he was also a witness. Mr. George’s main contribution for the prosecution was the “confession“ evidence.
The tape was played. It was two minutes long. Sandy's voice was flat, no emotion. She repeated her name and the date of the interview at the request of Mr. George. This proved to be a mistake. Sandy‘s voice was very weak as she admitted to George’s leading question.
Recording: “You stole the money from your cash box, didn’t you?"
Recording: "Yes," said Sandy, her voice faint.
On cross examination, I asked where the interview had been conducted. It was in a utility room on the second floor.
"Was anyone else in the room besides you and Sandy?" I asked Mr. George.
"No," he replied.
"How long was she detained in the room in total?"
"Two hours," he replied.
"And how long is the tape of Sandy’s so called confession?"
"Objection. Argumentative," said the D.A.
"Maybe," said the judge. "But it’s cross. Overruled. Proceed."
"Please answer, Mr. George," I said.
"Two minutes," said Mr. George.
"Well, did you speak with her before you turned the recorder on?" I asked.
"What did you talk about?"
"I asked her if she stole the money."
"How long did that take?"
"A few seconds."
"Less than thirty?"
"What did she say?"
"She admitted it," said Mr. George.
"How long did that take?"
"Same. A few seconds."
"Less than thirty?"
"So, if she was in the room for two hours and you only have two minutes of tape, what did you talk about for the other one hour and fifty-eight minutes you were in the room?"
"I don’t recall," he replied.
"Did you tell her that if she didn’t confess that her little girl would be placed in McClaren Hall?"
That’s all I needed. I had Sandy's three co-workers prepared to testify that this was exactly what he told them—and in a braggadocio way.
The prosecution rested after George.
I called the co-workers. The Court allowed two. That was enough. Both were very credible, and the D.A. did no damage. They admitted they were friends of Sandy’s, but added they would not lie because of their friendship. Sandy then testified that she did not steal the money. She admitted making the statement on the tape because she recognized her voice but didn’t really remember making it. She said she made the admission because she was terrified of losing her child. She finished her testimony tearfully.
The moment of truth had arrived. I called the locksmith, Mr. Watson. After laying the foundation of his qualifications, I asked him if he had met me before. He answered "yes" and described what I had asked him to do.
"You asked me to try and pick the lock," he said.
"How many times?"
"What did you use?"
I did not ask him to pick the lock. I wanted the D.A. to ask him. He really had no choice. If he didn’t, it would be tantamount to an admission that the so-called lock was useless.
"Okay," said the D.A. "Open it."
A word about courtroom demonstrations—VERY dangerous. Remember when Chris Darden, one of the prosecutors asked O.J. to try on the "glove." This resulted in “if it doesn’t fit, you must acquit.” Huge mistake. The plus side of demonstrations are that theatrics appeal to the jury, if successful. I thought I had done as much as I could to produce a good outcome, but still I worried. My witness wasn't opening the actual box now on the witness stand—he opened a duplicate.
In response to the D.A.’s request, Mr. Watson picked up the hairpin and started. I glanced at the jurors. The bottom row leaned forward over the jury box railing—all six. The top row leaned forward to the point they were invading the space of the lower-seated jurors. The alternates were asked to stand. Everyone was fully engaged. My stomach was in revolt. The box was not opening.
After perhaps 30 seconds, it popped open. The jurors all fell back in their chairs. I regained my composure, and the D.A. said, “No further questions.”
The last stage of the trial is always the closing arguments. The prosecution gets to go first and last. Defense argues in between. I was loaded with good arguments and my pent up anger flowed. I argued to the jurors that Mr. George was a wanna-be cop. His alleged confession was obtained by psychological and emotional coercion. I argued that Sandy merely repeated what George told her to say. As evidence of that, I pointed out that on the tape, George said, “Today is Thursday, March 25th," when in fact it had been Wednesday, March 24th, when the interview occurred. When George asked her to repeat the date, Sandy had repeated the same wrong date. There was no reason to ask her to repeat the date. Amateur. Sandy's response only supported my argument that she was in a zombie-like state, repeating words like a robot.
To make matters worse, George was sitting in the front row of the courtroom—the only witness to stay for the closing arguments.
"Why is he here?" I asked the jury. "What is his interest?"
I then walked over to where George sat.
"This man is a liar,“ I said, pointing at George. "He lied to you when he denied his threats to Sandy."
I argued for about 45 minutes. Too long is never good.
The D.A.'s close was simple. "If you believe the Defendant, I have a bridge in Brooklyn I would like to sell you.“
My closing line: “Would you bet your life savings on the truth of the charges against my client? If not, don’t bet Sandy’s freedom on it.”
Jury was out one hour and came back with a resounding "Not Guilty." Resounding because the jurors were jubilant. They embraced Sandy. She was crying, as were some of the jurors.
After the trial, I knocked on the judge's chamber door and stuck my head in.
"So, where do you want to locate our offices?"
Bill Collins has practiced law in Southern California for over forty years and has a lot of stories to tell. We are proud to welcome his unique perspective and original stories to Flapper Press.
Read Elizabeth Gracen's interview with Bill Collins here.
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