Metropolitan News-Enterprise


Tuesday, December 2, 2008


Page 3


Court of Appeal’s Oral Argument Changes Minds of Student Observers


By SHERRI M. OKAMOTO, Staff Writer


Ventura Superior Court Judge Vincent J. O’Neill took the bench for the first time as a temporary judge assigned to Div. Eight of this district’s Court of Appeal before a packed courtroom.

A group of about 50 high school students from James Monroe High School in North Hills and Environmental Charter in Lawndale who attended oral argument in People v. Fails, No. B205194, as part of the Appellate Court Experience program laughed appreciatively as O’Neill—who was not on the panel for the case the students were there to learn about—explained he was present to observe the proceedings,  just like the students.

Deanna Duran, Deivy Arredondo and Hotencia Gonzalez, all seniors at James Monroe High School, predicted prior to the argument that the court would uphold appellant Jerome Fails’ conviction for possession of cocaine base with intent to distribute based on the testimony of a witness who had accused Fails of dealing narcotics and directed officers to a cache of cocaine base secreted behind a light switch in Fails’ motel room.

Environmental Charter High School Senior Denise Villasenor said she expected “the truth to come out.”       

The girls had all seen the briefs for the case, and taken part in a classroom session with volunteer attorneys who explained the appellate court process and case background to the students.

Malibu attorney Pamela J. Voich argued before Justices Laurence D. Rubin, Madeleine Flier, and Patricia A. Bigelow that the evidence was insufficient to establish her client’s constructive possession of the drugs.

She emphasized that the witness had recanted her statements to police, and no other evidence tied Fails to the contraband. 

In turn, Deputy Attorney General Colleen M. Tiefemann maintained that the witness’ credibility was an issue of fact for the jury to determine, and that the jury’s adverse determination was entitled to deference on appeal.

After the close of argument, Duran, Arredondo, Gonzalez and Villasenor all expressed doubt as to Fails’ guilt. Villasenor said the defense came up with “strong points,” and Arredondo opined that “the evidence didn’t mesh.”

The four said they thought Fails’ conviction should be reversed, and were eager to know what the court’s decision would be.

Once the court issues its opinion, attorney volunteers will return to the schools, aid the students in a mock trial, and then reveal the justices’ decision.

The ACE program was founded in 2005, and is co-sponsored by the court, the Constitutional Rights Foundation, the Los Angeles County Bar Association’s Appellate Courts Committee, and the California Academy of Appellate Lawyers. The program has served over 650 students from over 20 high schools in Los Angeles County.

The program takes place four times per year, and rotates among the appellate courts’ divisions.

Randee Barak, co-chair of the program said that the program is in need of more volunteer attorneys and, like all nonprofits, relied on the generosity of its donors to continue. Tax-deductible contributions may be made to the Constitutional Rights Foundation, and volunteer attorneys were requested to contact Barak at or her co-chair, Benjamin G. Shatz of Manatt, Phelps & Phillips at


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