LOS ANGELES, Oct. 16, 2006 -- Well, it wouldn't be a Jim Parkman trial if something crazy didn't happen and this one is no exception.
Arriving at the courthouse in Los Angeles Monday morning I began hearing rumors in the press about there having been a plea deal in the case late Friday and there was going to be no trial for Stefan Eriksson, the Swedish businessman accused of grand theft, embezzlement, DUI and gun possession charges. The gun charges have been separated out and will be tried separately.
This is the same Stefan Eriksson that allegedly plowed a red Ferrari Enzo, which prosecutors alleged he had stolen from the U.K. financial institution which owned it, into a utility pole on the Pacific Coast Highway in Malibu going at speeds ranging from 160-200 mph.
According to information that came out in court on Monday, the agreement would have had Eriksson able to plead "no contest" on four counts and get a two year, four month sentence and pay a $25,000 fine. Eriksson would have had to admit to further alleged offenses showing a pattern of related felony conduct including taking, damaging and destroying something of value in excess of $1 million and alleged conduct related to fraud and embezzlement in excess of $500,000.
But Eriksson's decision to pull back from a plea deal leaves him now facing 11 years and two months of possible jail time as opposed to two years and four months of time. He's already got between 9-10 months credit, so he might have been out in a little over a year.
Judge Schnegg wanted to be sure Eriksson understood what he was doing and gave him plenty of chances to change his mind. Finally she told the Swede, "I can assure you that if you are convicted that two years, four months would not be a realistic sentence...Any one of the felonies would probably bring greater jail time...If the court brings the jury in, we're not going to go back and forth (about the plea deal).
Turns out the rumors were right and wrong. I'll let Mr. Parkman tell the story about the weekend's events in his words:
In court Monday, Eriksson told the judge, "I can't agree that I stole the cars because I did not."
The charges left boil down to two counts of theft, two counts of embezzlement and two counts related to driving under the influence in the first trial. But who knows what will happen with regard to those.
Parkman told reporters Monday that he thought Eriksson may have been a "little distraught about whether to do the plea or whether to not (do it), so on Sunday he looked like he hadn't slept a whole lot, but I think he made the decision and he made it according to what he felt like was in the best interest for him and so that's all anybody can ask for as far as a defense lawyer goes."
As to his feeling about Eriksson backing away from the deal the Alabama attorney says, "I always agree with everything the client does as long as it's reasonable and thought out and made with an open mind and so it doesn't matter to me about whether someone pleads or not, it matters to me whether or not they're happy about the decision they make, regardless of the outcome."
"What he's saying is he didn't commit the crime in regards to the two vehicles (now left in the charges), the Mercedes SLR and the black Enzo(Ferrari)," says Parkman.
Yes, you're reading it right, the red Ferrari Enzo that Parkman's client allegedly wrecked and split in two is no longer an issue as regards the previously alleged theft and embezzlement charges of the more than $1 million vehicle that was shipped back in pieces to the financial institution that is said to have owned the vehicle.
California attorney Alec Rose valiantly tried again to get the DUI counts disjoined from the embezzlement and theft charges but the judge said,"I'm certainly not going to break this up into three trials."
Jury selection began Monday afternoon with the judge going through her procedures for determining if a juror had good cause to be released from their obligation. One thing we found out was that in Los Angeles County they use about 6,000 jurors a day. Parkman reminded the judge that she had said getting through jury selection was the "hardest part" of the trial process. "I got it now," said Parkman, after the slow moving process inched it's way along to the break for the day. "I want to extend my sympathy (to the judge)."
Judge Schnegg told the prospective jurors there were only two hardship reasons to get out of jury duty: 1)"you can't pay your rent" or 2)"you can't put food on the table for your family."
"The legislature has really tightened up on what I can excuse people for," said the judge. Later in the afternoon proceedings it turned out two jurors had received the same juror ID number which identifies each juror to protect their privacy. The judge simply went to using the last five numbers in their ID for those two jurors. The judge started to laugh but relayed to the prospective jurors, "When I laugh I don't think." She said it was a good thing the fifth number from the end didn't match as well.
In explaining the concept of innocent until proven guilty and the government's level of burden of proof, the well known judge posed an interesting hypothetical question to the prospective jurors: If you take your seat in the jury box and the people (prosecution) say "Your honor, the people rest" without putting on any evidence, what must your verdict be? The answer, of course, is not guilty because the government has not proven anything against the defendant. It was just an interesting way to get the point across.
Judge Schnegg appears to have a lot of common sense and a great sense of humor, once even questioning how many Alabama lawyers it took to replace one L.A. lawyer. She picked up right away on Parkman's attempted charm offensive and played along with it. When the pool photographers were told they would have to remove their cameras, since they were allowed in contingent on there being a plea agreement, she told the camera people that she didn't believe any of the attorneys would have a problem with them taking a few shots prior to leaving, Parkman went to work again saying, "Only if they get my sexy side."
Judge Schnegg has had fun with the lower Alabama attorney who told L.A. reporters today he was "excited to see how the people take to the accent that I don't think I have." Discussing the schedule for the trial she told Parkman, "We've been told you don't do closings in Alabama."
Parkman says he's enjoyed his time in L.A. He got to make a trip to the Coliseum to see a U.S.C. game and said he resisted the urge to jump out of the stands and ride around on the white horse "because that was a real sword the guy was wearing." He's also taken in a Lakers' game and he and his law partner William White have supposedly had a Jennifer Aniston sighting among other great events.
The affable lawyer has won supporters among the court staff for his friendliness and local reporters were glad he was approachable. I gathered from an overheard conversation in the courtroom that one of the prosecution team didn't seem so taken with Alabama lawyers and their approachability. Apparantly not aware of the lack of love, Parkman marched right out and talked to the media about how wonderful and talented the prosecutors in the case are.
"These are great prosecutors that are on this case. They're picked for a particular reason because it's kind of a high profile case and they're good at what they do, very good, so I'm kind of really like Rocky, I just want to go the distance with them. I just want to make sure I stand and go 15 rounds."
The well-known prankster of course can't resist pulling a fast one and he was given the opportunity at the end of the day with the slow as molasses elevator system in the criminal court building. Here's a hint. Don't try and take the elevators during lunch. We waited at least 15 minutes for a ride down to the first floor cafeteria, as all the elevators were jam packed.
Anyway, as an elevator door finally opened Parkman speaks loudly to people waiting with him, "Let's let the lady go first," speaking of a woman waiting for a ride down. We all stood still thinking Parkman might want to go down in another elevator, then the smart aleck slid right past the rest of us into the elevator while his law partners, myself, and members of the Eriksson family stand by in amazement. After we all realize what he had done, we hop aboard the elevator to the tune of "that was a good one wasn't it?"
All in a day spent with the attorney from Lower Alabama, who's known to blast the Lynyrd Skynyrd and who's Corvette tag reads, "L.A. Law."
Parkman says to tell the folks back home that "this is day four of Parkman held hostage, so the sooner I get back...the baddest part of this is we just finished a case lasting three weeks in Arizona and now we're here for no telling how long, so I am looking forward to getting back to, as you said, the grits and biscuits and maybe I can get home and get some of that soon."
We'll have more at some point tomorrow. This trial runs from about 10:30 a.m. to 4:15 or so. The judge has about 20 other cases she has to deal with in the morning before we arrive and more issues to take up after we leave. At this point who knows when opening statements will come, if ever.