Wednesday, August 03, 2011

So Many Trials, So Little Time

Back in the early 1980's when I was in the DA's office I was assigned to prosecute the case of a guy named Ed Gabriel. Gabriel was the owner of Gilchrist's Jewelers which was located near the Arlington Theater in the building now occupied by the restaurant Jane.

Gabriel lived in Montecito and was charged with grand theft. Customers would come into his store to have rings sized or repaired and he would swap out the stones and replace them with stones of lesser or, in some cases, no value or just plain not return the items.

The trial was the talk of the town because Gabriel was well known and Gilchrist's was the place to go back then for expensive jewelry. Gabriel was represented by Jerry Whatley, who at the time was one of the top criminal defense attorneys in town. The day Gabriel took the stand to testify in his own defense, KEYT sent one of its young reporters to cover the trial.

The reporter sat in the audience and took notes as Whatley carefully led his client through a direct examination in which Gabriel categorically, but nervously, denied ever stealing anything from any of his customers. At the noon break she hung around for a few minutes and asked a few questions of both Whatley and myself. She didn't return for the afternoon session of the trial that day.

That night, on the 6pm KEYT news, the Gabriel trial was the lead story with the reporter, who had been in the courtroom, doing a live shot and breathlessly proclaiming, "Jeweler Ed Gabriel firmly denies ever stealing from his customers!"

I watched the news that night and that one story forever changed my perception of the TV news business. That's because when court resumed that afternoon Gabriel was again on the witness stand and in front of a packed courtroom basically did a 180 degree turn and stunningly confessed to all of the charges of theft that had been made against him. I'd like to say the confession was the result of my withering cross-examination, but the truth is that the scandal and publicity leading up to the trial had taken its toll and Gabriel's guilty conscience just overcame him. It was as if he had overdosed on truth serum during the lunch break.

Of course, KEYT's viewers that night turned off the TV news with the impression that Gabriel was still steadfastly maintaining his innocence. In any event, the trial soon wrapped up, the jury found Gabriel guilty and the judge sentenced him to prison.

As far as I could tell, Giselle Fernández, the KEYT reporter who did the report on the Gabriel case, didn't suffer at all career wise as a result of reporting only half of what happened in the courtroom that day. She would go on to become a CBS news correspondent and anchor, then more recently an anchor of the KTLA Morning News and then of course, in a moment that would forever validate her arrival as true celebrity, a competitor on Dancing With the Stars.

So, I tell you this story to explain why I'm not covering two of the big court cases going on in Santa Barbara right now: The Peter Lance pre-trial hearings (And what a circus that has turned out to be!) and the trial over the ownership of the Independent. The Gabriel trial taught me that you can't do justice (no pun intended) to a trial by being there for only part of the proceedings.

As I've been telling people who have been writing or asking me why I'm not covering these cases, the answer is, not enough time. I recently started working an additional job so it's a little hard for me to tell my new boss, "I'm going over to the courthouse to see what's going on over there, I'll be back in about six hours." Don't think that would go over too well.

And that's the whole story.
© 2011 by Craig Smith and