Hearing Impaired

Julio Lazo didn't spend six months in jail because a judge thought he was lying A he never even got a chance to speak

As the proceedings continued, Bragdon and a colleague attempted to invoke the defendants' right to appear in court: "Judge, we object to the continuance of this."

Judge Spencer's reply: "Overruled. Actually, I'm conducting an ex parte hearing. I won't recognize objections."

Spencer denied bond for Lazo and Sanbrana, and also denied phone privileges from jail. "If they could [have] come up with witnesses," the judge says today, "they could have [presented their case], but they didn't want to. They never took further action. In this case no testimony was ever presented that they [Lazo and Sanbrana] were not a threat to the community."

The judge confirms that the defendants' purported gang ties had something to do with his ruling, and with his subsequent refusals to grant bond. The officer who arrested Lazo and Sanbrana wrote in his report that the murder victim had been a "gang member associate" of the pair. Morales also stated that Lazo belonged to a gang called the Second Street Fellas, and that he had been stopped on his way to court that day by friends of Lazo warning him not to testify. (A prosecutor familiar with the case says today that he doesn't think the murder or the alleged episodes of witness-tampering were gang-related.) In any event Lazo is, in the words of attorney Walter Reynoso, "no Snow White." At the time of his arrest he was enrolled in a pretrial-diversion program for first offenders, having been picked up for attempting to burglarize a car.

No witnesses testified at a subsequent hearing on February 3, when bond was again denied. On April 15, when Lazo's new attorney Jose Dorta was granted another bond hearing, he brought to court six witnesses to testify on Lazo's behalf A including relatives of the murder victim and witnesses disputing Morales's version of the November confrontation. But Judge Spencer refused to permit the witnesses to testify. "Counsel, you know, I can only hear the same argument just a couple of times. Then I don't have to hear it time and time and time again," the judge declared.

Dorta contended that Spencer had never actually heard a full defense of the charges against Lazo. "Basically," he argued, "the presumption of innocence is being thrown out the window on behalf of my defendant." Bond was denied nevertheless, and Lazo and Sanbrana remained in jail.

Finally, on May 3, at Dorta's request, Morales gave a detailed deposition in which he recanted his accusation that Lazo and Sanbrana had threatened to kill him. Deborah Gross, the assistant state prosecutor, sat in on the deposition and dropped the charges two days later. "I felt he was being harassed," she says, but adds that the evidence wasn't sufficient to support a criminal charge of witness tampering. (Other prosecutors who worked on the case speculate that Morales changed his story because he was afraid, or that his earlier account was misinterpreted. "He had a hard time expressing himself in English," Gross says of Morales, whose native tongue is Spanish.)

Even though his client has finally been released, Reynoso is still upset over the long-standing refusal to grant Lazo an opportunity to defend himself. "I was pretty outraged that the judge never heard any witnesses except this one kid who made the charges," asserts the attorney; Reynoso says Lazo is contemplating filing a false-imprisonment suit.

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