I am at the Criminal Court Building to watch arraignments and pretrial hearings. As Sean Smith wrote in Slouching to Babel, these hearings can offer a good deal of drama and detail about the dynamics of the LA justice system in a relatively short period of time. But on this day, the pace in arraignments is slow, so I wander up to the legendary ninth floor. This area requires additional security clearance to enter, as it is home to the most serious and high profile criminal trials. OJ Simpson was tried on this same floor. So was Richard Ramirez. So was Phil Spector.
I am in search of a case that has pathos and drama and that may also offer some insight into the human experience of our criminal justice process at its most extreme. Our work here at Crime Story is to identify, critique, and present narratives that illuminate deeper truths about how we handle crime and punishment.
I look into a couple of empty courtrooms and then slip into 305. This is case BA470834. The defendant, Froylan Delgado, is accused of “firing his weapon at an occupied motor vehicle.” The presiding judge, Stephen Marcus, swears in Detective Justin Fuller as a witness for the prosecution. Fuller, who sports an ill-fitting suit and a buzz haircut, is awkward, as if he doesn’t testify often. Prosecutor Arthur Leahy questions him about a YouTube video which allegedly shows Delgado firing at the car. Fuller admits that he never actually saw the video; he is there simply to assert the fact that such a video existed and that by the time he checked the link, it had been taken down. Reportedly, Google has no archived copy of it. Fuller is dismissed.
Delgado, who appears to be in his 40s, sits relaxed at the defense table, wearing an open-collar short-sleeve beige shirt, his head shaved and his forearms sleeved with tattoos. Delgado’s lawyer, Donald Calabria, sits by his side. Calabria is a Bar Panel Attorney. (This is California’s name for a private attorney who is appointed to represent an indigent client when the Public Defender’s and the Alternate Public Defender’s offices have conflicts precluding them from representing that individual.)
The mood of the jurors, a tableau of LA’s ethnic mosaic, is inscrutable. They drift between attentive and half-hearted attempts to hide their boredom. The elusive nature of the crucial video evidence is not helping them stay focused.
Leahy then calls Detective Jeremy Massey to the stand. Massey has short hair and stylish glasses, and he wears a well-tailored suit over a powder-blue shirt and blue, striped tie. He looks more like an accountant than an LAPD detective, but when he begins to testify, it is clear that he has a good deal more experience as a trial witness than Fuller. Massey tells the court that he works in the LAPD’s Northeast Gang Unit and that he has had between five and 10 encounters with Delgado, whom he identifies as a known member of the Avenues “criminal street gang” with the street name, “Chugo.”
Massey testifies that an informant sent him a link to the now-missing YouTube video clip that showed Delgado emerging from an East LA residence onto Drew Street and firing a weapon at a moving vehicle. Massey says that he took a screenshot of Delgado off the computer playing the YouTube video. The prosecutor presents that image to Massey and the court. While Massey squints at a personal monitor, a fuzzy image of a gunman appears on a large screen over Massey’s head for viewing by the jurors and the court. And while the gunman’s build seems similar to Delgado’s, it is by no means definitively him. Massey tries to explain this discrepancy by noting that the YouTube image was much clearer than his screenshot suggests.
The prosecutor follows this by playing yet another video for Massey and the jury. In security camera footage, we see a man carrying a weapon in his left hand walking from a residence, striding down a well-lit concrete driveway and into a dark street. A couple of bright flashes emerge from the pixilated gloom. Massey claims that this security camera footage syncs up with what he saw in the YouTube video, and that the flashes are from the muzzle of a gun. He refers to Delgado as “the shooter.”
Calabria rises from Delgado’s side and objects to Massey’s use of the phrase “the shooter.” Marcus agrees to send the jury out of the courtroom and a debate ensues between Delgado and Leahy about whether Massey should be allowed to identify the defendant as “the shooter” or “as the person I believe to be the shooter.” It seems the perfect moment to slip out of Courtroom 305, as the wheels of justice confront the twin speed bumps of technological limits and petty semantics.
As I leave, it occurs to me that these accumulated “speed bumps” may impact how a jury decides a man’s future. Language itself is a form of technology, and technology — for all its wonders — frequently fails us. Our language and interpretive skills are often insufficient to fully capture life as we experience it. And so a jury, as it decides Delgado’s fate, must rely on the products that lawyers and witnesses manufacture with this technology. On testimony. On arguments. On stories.
I slip into Courtroom 307 and take a seat, the only spectator in the gallery. This is a homicide trial. In case BA470704, Vincent Lloyd Magee is accused of stabbing and killing Robert Jamie Wheeler in an early morning Skid Row attack. Judge Curtis Rappe presides. Wheeler died at approximately 3:15 am in the middle of San Julien Street near Skid Row’s Midnight Mission, which in recent years has become the epicenter of an ever-expanding tent city.
The only media report that I can find of Wheeler’s murder is a single-sentence reference in The LA Times’ Homicide Report.
The Homicide Report is a significant development in communicating the reality of murder in the City of Angels. It is “an interactive map, database, and blog that chronicles homicides in Los Angeles County” that was started in 2007 by reporter Jill Leovy. Leovy was attempting to chronicle each of the 845 homicide deaths that took place in LA that year. Leovy would go on to write a bestselling and universally lauded book called Ghettoside, using one story as a way to examine the great plague of homicide in America.
The Report promises to provide “basic details of each killing. In addition, the report includes in-depth reporting of cases and communities, as well as updates when arrests are made and suspects are tried in court.”
Here is how The Homicide Report captured Mr. Wheeler’s murder: “Robert Jamie Wheeler, a 44-year-old black male, died Monday, Aug. 20, after being stabbed in Downtown, according to Los Angeles County coroner’s records.”
There is not yet a mention in the Homicide Report of McGee’s arrest for the murder of Robert Wheeler. It seems there are limits even to this new technology.
Detective Jonathan Vander Lee takes the stand. He is tall and thin with a long, lean face and wears a dark suit with a grey shirt and a striped tie.
(I would later learn that Vander Lee received a Medal of Valor in 2015 for the bravery he demonstrated when he rescued two children from a crossfire zone. He also shot a 23-year-old man to death in 2014 but was found by the DA’s office to have “acted lawfully in self-defense and defense of others” in the shooting.)
He testifies in a direct and economic manner, as the prosecutor, Noelle Brown, allows him to orient the court on the geography of the murder scene with the aid of a projected Google map photograph. Vander Lee then relates how he pieced together the events that led to Wheeler’s death by taking eyewitness statements and reviewing footage from security video cameras positioned near the murder scene. He weaves the pieces into this narrative. Magee chased Wheeler up San Julien Street; stabbed him from behind; returned to his tent near the corner of San Julien and 6th Street; wiped Wheeler’s blood off of his knife blade; went into his tent; emerged a few minutes later having changed his clothes; walked to a vacant lot across the street from where his tent stood (presumably to dispose of the murder weapon); and then returned to his tent. Vander Lee testifies that the murder weapon was recovered at around 9 am that same morning in the very same lot where witnesses and the security video indicate Magee had walked after cleaning up himself and his knife. Magee sits at the defense table impassively.
The jury is motionless, listening in rapt silence as Vander Lee spins his account. Vander Lee is neither dramatic nor emotional. The power of his efficient clarity is palpable.
Brown proposes to play the security videos that captured the murder, but the courtroom’s antiquated system refuses to cooperate. After several attempts to initiate the connection between the prosecutor’s laptop and the courtroom TV monitors, Rappe suggests that the court should give the jurors a break while counsel and technical staff address the malfunction. The jury files out, left stranded yet again at that crucial intersection of technology and story.
In the sudden stillness of the courtroom, as Brown waits for her tech help, Philip Dube, the Public Defender representing Magee, turns to ask her about her plans for the rest of the day’s session. As they talk, they both notice that I am sitting there… the sole observer to these proceedings. Nearly in unison, they say some version of “Who are you with?”
“I’m media,” I reply.
“This isn’t a media trial, is it?” Brown says to Dube. “Nope,” says Dube, who then turns to me to ask, “What outlet are you with?”
“Crimestory.com. We’re a start up,” I say.
And then I excuse myself, and wonder whether — without my subsequently checking the court minutes — anyone outside the criminal justice system and their immediate families will ever know or care if Chugo really did fire a gun in that darkened alley or whether Magee will be found responsible for Wheeler’s death.
Post script: Crime Story followed up on the verdicts in both of these trials…
At 11 am on August 11, after a few hours of deliberations, a jury finds Froylan Delgado “Guilty” on four of the five counts against him.
In Vincent Lloyd Magee’s case, jury deliberations begin at 10:15 am on April 16. Five hours later, they reach a verdict.
Penal Code 187 of California law defines “murder” as “the unlawful killing of a human being or fetus with malice aforethought.” Magee was found “Not Guilty” of this charge.
In California, second-degree murder is defined as all murders that do not constitute first-degree murder. On this charge, Magee was found “Guilty.”
In the eyes of the law, Robert Jamie Wheeler’s killer now has a name. We have passed that information along to The Homicide Report so that their story will be more complete.