Stat Counter

View My Stats

Wednesday, October 19, 2011

My "Onion Field" degrees of separation

It is reported today that Gregory Powell, a life prisoner, was denied parole. Powell has prostate cancer and is not expected to live more than another six months so this is likely to be his last try for release. Powell and his crime partner, Jimmy Smith, were notorious as the "Onion Field" killers, subjects of Joseph Wambaugh’s book about the kidnapping of two L.A.P.D. officers and the killing of one (Ian Campbell). 

The crime occurred in 1963, the book was published ten years later. In between there were three trials, appeals, reversals of convictions, re-sentences, and eventually life sentences.

I got to know several of the "players" in the Onion Field case drama. John Moore, the public defender who represented Powell in his first trial was my boss, Charley Maple who did the re-trial was a colleague. I also knew others: Irving Kanarek, who got Smith his first reversal, represented him in his second trial, Arthur Alarcon, the judge who removed Kanarek as Smith’s counsel, and Bill Drake, who was appointed to replace Kanarek, and later became a superior court judge.

My first connection with the case occurred around 1967, while I was a student at Loyola Law School. I took a class taught by Arthur Alarcon, then a Superior Court judge. In one lecture, Alarcon vented about his recent reversal by the California Supreme Court in the Smith and Powell retrial. Alarcon ranted about the dilemma he, as a judge was placed in by Kanarek’s incompetent defense tactics. The judge claimed that he had removed Kanarek (over the objection of his client) after it became clear that Kanarek was hurting his client’s case by his eccentric and ineffective behavior in court. 

Later, when I got to know Irving fairly well, I came to sympathize with Alarcon’s assessment of the lawyer, who used to come to the public defender luchroom to cadge potato chips and nap on our couch, his undarned socks revealing dirty toes. Many judges had Kanarek stories, revolving around his infuriating conduct in courts, including his never-ending arguments, constant objections, and other "obstructionist" tactics. 

On the other hand, many defense lawyers, though amused by Irving’s extreme chutzpah, also admired his vigorous defenses, which sometimes hit the mark. For example, in the pro forma rush of arraignments in the crowded court, Irving, alone among all defense lawyers, refused to "waive reading of the complaint, and statement of rights," refused to admit his client’s "true name." The rite, considered a meaningless formality by others, was deemed by Irving to be a concession that an accused need not make, in view of the constitutional duty of the prosecution to prove everything and the right of the defense to remain mute. 

Knowing Irving put into perspective Judge Alarcon’s explanation of his ruling which relieved Kanarek. In his lecture, the judge cited Kanarek’s continuing objection and perpetual argument about the security in the court room. Alarcon had ruled after a hearing that shackling the defendant was required because of the poor sight lines in the court, which was in the old building on New High Street, where pillars obstructed the bailiff’s view of the counsel table. Kanarek’s refusal to accept the ruling was the final straw. The judge removed him.

The problem was that he replaced Kanarek with Bill Drake, who was a retired cop. In the most notorious cop killing case in L.A. history, this was a controversial choice. Alarcon argued (to our class) that he was a good choice, because his credibility as defense counsel was enhanced by his experience as a cop. His new client, however, did not agree, feeling somewhat uneasy by replacement of his vigorous advocate who had won reversal of his first conviction, with Drake, who was friendly with the D.A., sheriffs and L.A.P.D. detectives, and seemed to sympathize and identify with the victims. 

After the second conviction, the supreme court concluded that Kanarek was not incompetent, ordered another trial.

When I joined the public defender, John Moore, who had represented Gregory Powell in his first trial, was now running the office and became my boss. Moore was a stern, but principled attorney, whose views on what it meant to be a public defender, inspired a generation of excellence in our office. Charley Maple, who took over the re-trial, was one of my colleagues. Both men had notable eccentricities of their own, two of the many colorful personalities I got to know in my twenty years there.

My first felony trial assignment was before Judge Bill Drake. It didn’t take long for me to appreciate Jimmy Smith’s dilemma. In my experience, Drake was a lazy, ill-prepared judge, who delegated his authority to the D.A. (In my day, his calendar deputy D.A. was Paul Plutae, a strange and evil character, who reveled in his role of running Drake’s court room.) 

Some day I’ll tell you about my slightly closer association with the Manson case.