If Hollywood is to be believed, a courtroom is a dramatic place. It’s where Jack Nicholson roars at Tom Cruise that he can’t handle the truth, and where Henry Fonda and eleven other men get angry. In reality, though, even the most gruesome trials are subject to mundane delays and bureaucratic inefficiencies that might be shunned by a screenwriter but nevertheless can be strangely compelling in their own right.
On August 2, 2019, a fellow Crime Story reporter and I attend one such trial. Jesus Calla, wearing a blue suit with slicked back hair, faces forty years to life for nine felony charges of sexual assault against children. As we arrive, the foreman announces that the jury has reached verdicts on counts eight and nine, but is hung on counts one and two. They all agree that further deliberation will not help resolve the debate. The jury delivers its partial verdicts to the bailiff, who passes them to Judge Renee Korn, a blond woman who speaks deliberately and tells the jury she chooses her language carefully to avoid confusion. She checks that the verdicts are signed and dated properly and notes that this isn’t the way things happen on TV, which she finds “always surprises jurors.” Court clerk Ted Lai then reads the verdicts aloud: the jury finds Calla guilty of committing a lewd act upon a child, and guilty of committing sex offenses against more than one victim.
Deputy District Attorney Christine Von Helmolt, a smartly-dressed woman with greying bangs and a crucifix pin, requests a breakdown of the votes on the deadlocked counts – which the foreman doesn’t recall. The jury steps out for what should be a quick discussion to determine the breakdown, but the minutes tick by and they don’t come back. After the bailiff escorts Calla out of the courtroom, Von Helmolt quips that maybe the jury went into deliberation again after all. It turns out that she’s right: after Judge Korn has the bailiff bring the jury back in, the foreman announces that one juror has changed their opinion on the two hung counts. The vote tally has gone from 11-1 to 10-2, and they have re-started their discussion. By this point, it is already after 1 pm, and Judge Korn decides to break for lunch. As she has to leave to teach a class, another judge will take her place when the court reconvenes.
We return at 1:45, and the jury resumes deliberation. A new judge has yet to arrive, however, so the courtroom has little to do except twiddle its collective thumbs. Von Helmolt chats with Calla’s lawyer Gabriel Silvers, an amiable man with thinning hair in a light suit. They both seem bewildered that the jury didn’t remember the vote was split 11-1. Von Helmolt addresses the victims’ family members (and possibly the victims themselves) in the audience, explaining what the jury is doing. “We’re also waiting for a judge,” she adds, and one of the women responds, with more than a little sarcasm, “Well, that would help.”
Thirty minutes pass, and still no judge. At this point, the prosecutor leaves to go look for a replacement, comparing the wait to “water torture.” Silvers takes a break from chatting about the Lakers with the bailiff to glance at me and my fellow reporter and wonder aloud, “Could we just put a robe on one of these guys back here?” There’s a bizarre duality at play, which on the one hand has all the casual banality of waiting in line at the DMV on a slow afternoon. This has a numbing effect that almost makes it easy to forget that, on the other hand, a man is on trial for committing some of the most appalling crimes imaginable. The jury’s verdict will likely have life-altering consequences for many of the people here. But for now, all they can do is wait.
Von Helmolt returns, sans judge, and soon heads out again to keep looking, this time with Silvers accompanying her. My reporting partner leaves in search of another courtroom with more going on, and while I can hardly blame her, I decide to stay. There’s something compelling about what, on the surface, seems to be the most un-dramatic of situations. Calla’s alleged crimes took place as long ago as 2007, with others occurring in 2008, 2009, 2011, and 2012, and I wonder how the victims’ families who are in attendance must feel. After waiting over a decade for justice to be served, they must now endure another, unanticipated delay. Are they frustrated, like the attorneys, that the jury couldn’t remember an 11-1 split? That no judge was immediately on hand to take Korn’s place? That counsel for both sides had to take it upon themselves to track down a replacement? They don’t show it if they are, and instead sit quietly like the rest of us.
After nearly forty-five minutes of waiting, Judge Mark S. Arnold finally enters the court. Once Calla and the jury return, Arnold deadpans through his walrus mustache: “I am not Judge Korn – you could probably tell.” It seems Judge Korn’s careful language and the extra deliberation time have not ultimately been helpful, as the jury has remained hopelessly deadlocked on counts one and two, for which the votes are now split 8 guilty to 4 not guilty. After Von Helmolt briefly consults with the victims’ family in the audience, they agree to dismiss these counts. Judge Arnold convicts Calla and sets his sentencing hearing for October 9th with no bail, and thanks the jury for their service. If the verdict has much impact on Calla, he doesn’t show it and remains impassive as he’s remanded into custody.
Once the bailiff has removed Calla, Von Helmolt comforts a woman in the audience as she begins to cry softly. This is as close as it gets to the fireworks movies have practically conditioned me to expect. And just like that, it’s over. The relative lack of drama feels jarring in contrast to the severity of Calla’s crimes — but for the judges, attorneys, and other court staff who regularly deal with cases like this one, this has likely been just another day at the office.