Visitors to the Compton Courthouse traffic court face long lines, high fees

A no-win situation image

The way William Kirkwood sees it, he’s going to end up back in jail either way. He’s not actually at the Compton Courthouse for himself. He’s here with his brother. But later in the week he’s got his own traffic arraignment downtown for a Metro ticket. He’s not sure how much the ticket will cost him, but he’s failed to appear at several previous hearings and figures he owes at least a couple hundred dollars by now.

“If I don’t have money to pay them, how am I going to pay them?” Kirkwood asked. “If I go to commit a crime to try and pay off this ticket, then what? I’m gonna go back to jail, right? If I don’t pay the ticket, then they’re going to track me down and I’ll go to jail. I’m in a no-win situation with this court.”

Indeed, no love seems lost between Kirkwood and the Compton Courthouse. Earlier he was kicked out of the room where his brother was giving his plea. Before the arraignments began, the bailiff was clear about not coming in the courtroom unless your name was posted on a list by the door. Kirkwood ignored the rule and went in with his brother. He said he doesn’t trust what goes on inside those rooms.

“I could be out here for four hours while he’s handcuffed and going to jail,” he said. It was his excess talking that eventually got him kicked out.

Kirkwood’s got his complaints, but he’s also got ideas. He thinks traffic court could be better with a few improvements.

“For one, the long wait we have to wait. We’re out here at 8 in the morning, and things don’t start until 11.”

In the Compton Courthouse, traffic court does begin at 9, but only for people with trials. People who come to plead guilty or not guilty have to wait in the hallway until the trials are done—usually about a two-hour process.

“Then they need to change the way they talk to people,” Kirkwood continued. “They think they can talk to you any kind of way, like you’re a kid. I’m not a kid. I’m a grown man. I expect respect.”

In a word, frustrated.

Padraig O’Callaghan comes from a different world than Kirkwood. He grew up in Dublin, Ireland, and has never, before today, been inside a courthouse for a ticket. But in many ways, his sentiments are the same.

O’Callaghan said the instructions about appearing in court said to arrive before 9, so he was here at 8:50. He didn’t know he’d have to wait for the trials to finish up first. At around 10:30, leaning against the wall with his arms crossed, he sighed.

“If I had to choose one word to describe the mood right now, it would be ‘frustrated.’”

He’s right. About 40 people lined the sides of the hallways outside the traffic courtroom. Several had resorted to sitting on the floor. About half had their cell phones out, texting or playing games. A toddler tugged at her mom’s shirt, upset, and started moaning, “Mommy, mommy,” over and over again.

At one point, the traffic court cashier opened her office door, stuck her head out into the hallway, and snappily asked, “Whoever is banging on the wall, please stop.” Everyone looked around befuddled. No one had been banging.

Minutes ticked by, and more people started to sit on the ground. The toddler’s complaints turned into full on crying. Someone made a comparison about being stuck on an airplane.

“Poor kiddo,” said O’Callaghan.

At 10:55, the traffic court bailiff, Deputy Stannard, appeared in the hallway. He cupped his hands around his mouth and announced that everyone needed to form four lines, one on each of the big rows of white tiles on the floor.

“Not the brown squares. Stand on four white squares,” he repeated.

O’Callaghan rolled his eyes. He whispered, “I feel like a sheep.”

Stannard clarified the purpose of traffic arraignment court to the group. “All you’re gonna do is tell the judge guilty or not guilty. The judge is not here to hear your case.”

image“If you want a trial, he continued, “you have to pay the ticket first, and if you don’t have the money, the judge doesn’t care.”

The judge Stannard referred to is Ellen C. Deshazer. Stannard said she’s been the traffic judge at the Compton Courthouse for about a year and a half. The last judge was there three years. They don’t usually stay much longer than that, Stannard said.

Stannard continued his pre-arraignment speech, reminding people that if they wanted community service, there was still a fee for that, and it wasn’t an option if someone already had a job.

“If you want community service you have to ask to the judge.” He repeated the phrase again, word for word. “Don’t tell me later that you didn’t hear me say that—because if you didn’t hear me say it, three times now, then frankly you shouldn’t get anything.”

He advised people with tickets for driving solo in the carpool lane to avoid claiming another driver ran them off the road and forced them into the special lane.

“It’s a running joke about swerving into the carpool lane around here.” He said. “Don’t try it.”

His final piece of advice was not to blame a child for a seatbelt violation. “No one believes your kid unbuckled your seatbelt.”

As he ushered people into the courtroom, he asked the woman with the crying child, now slightly calmer, to stay outside. He would come and get her when her name was called. Later, he came back into the hall and the two made small talk. He looked at her ticket and said she could reduce her fine by going to traffic school.

The woman seemed unsure. She didn’t think she’d have time.

“Oh, it’s not a big deal,” Stannard said. He explained she could do the course online, from her home.

“I’d get a pizza and have some friends over,” he said. “Put the little one to bed and make a night out of it.”

Thoughts to share, but no chance to speak

Robert Rocha has been to his fair share of L.A. County traffic courts. He likes the one in San Pedro the best.

“At San Pedro, they take everyone in at the same time,” he said. “That way you’re not left waiting with no chairs.”

He’s also had plenty of interactions with court employees. Deputy Stannard yelled at Rocha and his friend for talking while he was trying to give his pre-court speech.

Rocha’s friend is waiting for his sister to get out of traffic court. He thinks she’ll have to pay $1,000–two $500 tickets for the same thing. Rocha’s not sure what his friend’s sister got a ticket for. He thinks it might be a DUI, but probably not, since that’s a matter handled in a different courtroom.

“Maybe open container then,” he speculated as he checked his watch. Rocha had to make it to a parole meeting in Long Beach after wrapping up here.

Suddenly, Kirkwood emerged from the courtroom, a goofy grin on his face, despite having just been kicked out. Rocha doesn’t know Kirkwood, but they bond over their mutual dislike of Deputy Stannard.

Rocha makes a joke about black and brown relations. Kirkwood is black and Rocha is Latino.

“Yeah, they say we’re not supposed to get along, but look at this love,” said Kirkwood, wrapping an arm around Rocha’s shoulder.

O’Callaghan came out shortly after and made his way into another line, this one to pay the cashier.

He pleaded guilty to riding a Metro bus without the appropriate pass. He said he bought a weeklong pass on a Saturday, but broke his rib the following Monday and ended up not using the pass until two weeks later. In Ireland, he said, bus riders validate their passes once they get on the bus, so the week doesn’t begin until you actually use the pass. He didn’t know the week starts at the date of purchase in LA.

“It’s quite draconian that you can’t even speak up,” he said. “That’s $180. Just gone.”

O’Callaghan would have liked to have had a trial and explained his case, but he didn’t want to take another day off of work to come back to the court.

He took one last glance at the receipt from the cashier’s office before folding it in half and stuffing it in his pocket.

“No Irish luck today,” he said.

Judge Kelvin Filer talks growing up in Compton


Kelvin D. Filer is a Los Angeles Superior Court Judge in Compton.

A native of the hub city, Judge Filer has been on the bench since 2002 after being appointed by former Gov. Gray Davis.

We sat down with Judge Filer inside his Compton chambers.


Photo courtesy of University of California Santa Cruz

Read more on this topic:
Compton student wins $40,000 for college from the free throw line
Arlon Watson given long sentence for murder of Compton teenager

Compton court hears closing arguments in Arlon Watson Trial

On the final day of arguments in the trial of Arlon Watson, defense attorney Tracy Grayson asked a witness about the height of the man she saw running away from a fast food restaurant in Compton on the night of May 24, 2009.

“I know he wasn’t a midget,” Debra Lindsey testified from the witness stand. She couldn’t remember exactly how tall he was–only that he was taller than her own five-foot-two-inch frame.

In the trial of the accused murderer of Dannie Farber, a high school student fatally shot at a Louisiana Fried Chicken on the 1900 block of West Rosecrans Avenue, the prosecution believes the man

Lindsey saw that night to be Watson, a 22-year-old Compton resident and suspected gang member.

The discrepancy over heights reported by witnesses to Farber’s shooting played heavily into the closing arguments of Watson’s defense.

The prosecution argued that it wasn’t necessary to quibble over such details in reports by traumatized witnesses when there was such compelling evidence that pointed to Watson as the shooter.

Summing up the major points presented in the two-week-long trial, Deputy District Attorney Joe Porras brought up several phone calls made by Watson from jail once he was arrested last year in which he expressed a willingness to “strike a deal” about a possible prison term.

Porras also reminded the jury of testimony from people like Ashley Webb, who last week said that Watson had told her directly that he shot Farber. He emphasized the stigma of snitching in the gang community and how hard it was to get witnesses to come forward. Failing to show up in court after being subpoenaed, Webb was arrested at her college basketball practice and brought to testify.

“That message that you hear starting in kindergarten—‘Don’t tattletale’—has taken a bastardized turn in snitching. There’s the feeling of ‘you could be next,’” Porras said. “One would hope that people would be lining up to testify, but that’s not the reality. A college girl playing basketball should not have to be arrested to do the right thing.”

Liars, and felons and thieves, oh my.

Grayson began his final statement to the jury by saying, “Arlon Watson did not shoot Dannie Farber.”

He went on to call the case against Watson a “sloppy, incompetent mess, ” describing the prosecution’s case as one “built on sand that has now crumbled.”

Returning to the discrepancies in the reports of the height of the shooter, Grayson assured the jury that this was not a minor detail, pointing to Watson and saying, “Someone’s life is at stake, he’s looking at life.”

The statement evoked swift admonishment from Judge Eleanor Hunter, who said that Grayson should know better than to bring up potential sentencing of the defendant, since such talk could affect a jury’s decision.

Unshaken, Grayson went back to claiming a lack of evidence and describing the people brought by the prosecution to testify as a “band of liars, felons and thieves, oh my.” He insisted they were all being paid and offered rewards for their witness services.

Farber’s girlfriend was with him when he was shot, and Grayson brought up differences between the defendant and the description of the shooter she gave to detectives. Grayson said Watson had a tattoo on his neck and a goatee, but the girlfriend described a clean-shaven man with no tattoo.

Grayson continued to question the credibility of witnesses, making frequent references to a multi-page checklist he kept at a podium. He also claimed phrases from Watson’s calls from jail were taken out of context by people who didn’t know Compton slang. He also wondered aloud why the prosecution didn’t call more witnesses to corroborate Webb’s story and accused Webb of lying, saying she was “smart enough to keep her story simple.”

When addressing the fact that Watson tried to run away when arrested by police, Grayson said, “Call me crazy, but black men from the hood don’t often trust police.”

At the end of his hour-long final argument, Grayson said to the jury, “Mr. Porras failed miserably in convincing you Watson is guilty.” He raised his voice slightly and concluded, “There is tons of reasonable doubt in this case.”

Verdict expected soon

In the prosecution’s final statement to the jury, Porras responded to Grayson, shaking his head and musing, “Listening to that, I have to wonder, were we watching the same trial?”

Porras said witnesses were not paid off and that Grayson’s lengthy final argument was “just odd” and “delusional.” Again citing the difficulty of finding witnesses for fear of being labeled a snitch, Porras reminded the jury of Randy Wells, who had to be relocated outside of his Compton neighborhood, believing his safety to be at risk after testifying.

The neck tattoo Grayson mentioned is actually behind Watson’s ear, Porras said. He also said the slang phrase from the jail calls Grayson called into question, “off the hook,” did not actually appear in the transcripts of the calls.

He encouraged the jury to rise above excuses and issues of racism. “At some point, people will be accountable for what they do.”

He ended by reminding the court of Watson’s phone calls one more time. “Someone who says, ‘I’ll take a deal for anywhere in the neighborhood of 30 years’—really? That’s someone who didn’t do it?”

The jury will reconvene tomorrow morning to deliberate.

Outside the courtroom at the end of the day, Farber’s aunt, Roxane Winston, said she thought the jury would arrive quickly at a guilty verdict.

“The evidence speaks for itself,” Winston said.

Photo: Arlon Watson, at his arraignment in February 2010. Credit: Al Seib/Los Angeles Times

More stories on the Arlon Watson trial:

Arlon Watson given long sentence for murder of Compton teenager

Arlon Watson trial offers glimpse of gang life in Compton

Arlon Watson trial offers glimpse of gang life in Compton

Ashley Webb did not enter the courtroom through the main door. She came in through the cage on the side of the room—a distinguishing feature of the courtrooms on the 10th floor of the Compton Courthouse, one of the two levels in the building dubbed “high security.”

Deputy District Attorney Joseph Porras asked the petite 21-year-old to describe what she was wearing to the jury.

Looking down at her orange jumpsuit, Webb replied, “Jail clothes. And handcuffs.”

“And were you wearing jail clothes yesterday?” the Porras asked.

Webb responded that she was not. She was visibly shaking because she was here to testify for the prosecution.

Pop culture or gang culture?

imageWebb’s testimony was part of the continuing trial of Arlon Watson, a 22-year-old Compton resident charged with the 2009 shooting death of Dannie Farber, Jr., a Narbonne High School senior and star football player.

The Sunday night of Memorial Day Weekend two years ago, Farber was eating dinner at a Louisiana Fried Chicken on Rosecranz and Central avenues in Compton with his girlfriend. According to prosecutors, Watson walked in the restaurant and asked Farber where he was from. Farber stood up and responded that he “didn’t gangbang,” but moments later he was shot and killed. Farber’s family and friends say he was not involved in gang activities at all, but pictures on several online social networking websites show Farber throwing gang signs and wearing lots of red, a color commonly associated with the gang the Bloods. Prosecutors say Watson was involved with a rival gang, the Crips.

When Watson appeared in court in February 2010 for his arraignment, he sported a county-issued blue jumpsuit and bushy hair. At the trial on Thursday he wore more formal courtroom attire with his hair in braids and black, square-framed glasses. He spent much of the day hunched over, resting his elbows on his knees.

Before testimony began, Porras warned Farber’s family and friends that he would be showing graphic pictures of Farber from immediately after the shooting. Several family members chose to sit outside during the presentation.

The morning’s first testimony came from Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department Sergeant Kenneth Roller. Roller confirmed that he and another officer were the first on the scene at the fast food restaurant the night of May 24, 2009. He arrived within 45 seconds of receiving the call of a shooting, but Farber did not appear to be breathing when he reached him. Roller identified around eight photographs he had taken that night, several showing spent shell casings that would have come from a semi-automatic gun. As the pictures became more graphic—close-ups showing Farber lying in pool of blood with several gunshot wounds to the chest–more of Farber’s family stepped outside the courtroom.

Roller said there was nothing about Farber’s outfit that night that jumped out as gang-related.
“He was wearing faded jeans and a white T-shirt. Gang members do wear outfits like that, but it’s also a look that’s in popular culture. My sons wear that outfit sometimes.”

Guardian angels

Sitting outside the courtroom during a lunch break, Farber’s grandmother, Michelle Malveaux, looked exhausted. She managed to smile and laugh weakly as younger family members cracked jokes.

“We’re all here,” Malveaux said. “Grandmas, Aunt Myrtle, and friends that are like family. They’ve been my guardian angels.”

Malveaux has been in court every day since the trial began on Monday. She’s not sure how long it will last.

“Definitely into next week,” she said. “Joe [Porras] may have told me the schedule, but things tend to go in one ear and out the other these days.”

Raffi Djabourian, forensic pathologist with Los Angeles Department of Coroner performed the autopsy on Farber. He confirmed in his testimony this afternoon that Farber died of three gunshot words, including one that severed his aorta and would have caused Farber to be brain-dead almost instantly because of loss of blood. Pictures from autopsy accompanied his testimony.

Watching from the back row of the courtroom, Malveaux pulled her sweater up and over her eyes, as if hiding under a blanket.

On a good day

Webb had been asked to appear in court on Monday. When she did not show up again after being served a subpoena at a basketball practice at a local college, she was arrested last night and taken to the Compton Sheriff’s Department. Webb had never spent time in jail before.

When asked why she didn’t show up to testify, Webb said that she was scared and worried about the safety of her mom and brother.

Webb grew up in Compton in the territory of a gang known as the Tragniew Park Crips. She knows many Crips, including some of her friends, but said she has never been involved in gang activity. She knew Watson by his nickname, A-Whack, and knew he was associated with the Crips.

Several nights after the shooting, Webb was hanging out with friends, including Watson, in her front yard. While her friends were discussing the shooting, someone asked Watson if he had pulled the trigger. Webb said that Watson told her he did. 
She also said Watson had called Farber a “slob,” a term Crips use to disrespect members of their rival gang, the Bloods.

Webb never went to authorities with the information for fear of being labeled a snitch. She said she had heard stories since middle school about the bad things that happen to people who tell on others in her neighborhood.

Just over a year ago, in early January 2010, Webb said the knowledge of what Watson said he had done began to weigh heavily on her. After encouragement from a friend, she spoke to a detective in the Los Angeles Police Department.

In October 2009, Webb was arrested for breaking into a house, but the DA rejected the case and charges were dropped. Webb denied she had been offered any sort of bargain or promised the incident would never come to trial.

Before she left the stand, Porras touched again the seriousness of snitching in the gang community. He asked Webb how tall she was.

“Five one-and-half,” she said. “On a good day.”

Testimony will continue into next week. If Watson is convicted as charged, he faces a maximum prison term of 50 years to life, according to the DA’s office.

Photo courtesy of Scott Varley / Torrance Daily Breeze