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Judging Winona

The trial of Winona Ryder, who was found guilty of two felonies in a compromise verdict Wednesday, was never really about guilt or innocence. It was not a case of ”shoplifting,“ as Mark Geragos, the attorney for the 31-year-old actress, constantly asserted. Nor was it grand theft and felony vandalism, as District Attorney Steve Cooley insisted, practically from the moment the pale, invariably polite Ryder was taken December 12 from the Saks Fifth Avenue basement security room to the Beverly Hills Police Department booking desk, some seven blocks away. True, Ryder had been nabbed just outside the store‘s plate-glass doorway, car keys in hand, toting $5,560 in tony merchandise -- including a $1,595 white spaghetti-strap Gucci evening dress, a $760 Marc Jacobs cashmere thermal shirt, a $539.90 (on sale) black Natori handbag, a $110 black Frederic Fekkai hair clip with silver sequins, and an $80 pair of tan Donna Karan socks -- neatly concealed beneath the Dolce & Gabbana brown bomber jacket, $297 pair of Gucci shoes and two YSL tops she had paid for.

If the Ryder trial had been about a burglary -- about whether Ryder willfully heisted the goods -- it is unlikely that the Los Angeles Superior Court, which this year alone had a shortfall of $57 million and has laid off 200 workers, would have been employed, along with 12 jurors and three alternates, for two weeks, to render a verdict. A modicum of justice -- at a savings of hundreds of thousands of dollars to the county, and roughly as much for the defendant -- could have been achieved with a plea bargain.

But the district attorney had something other than justice in mind. And it was up to the defense to expose the D.A.’s motive or, failing that, to ascribe one of its own to the prosecution. Geragos hinted at this early, in his opening remarks to the jury. After collaring his client and sequestering her in a small, windowless room, Geragos claimed, Saks security personnel lifted Ryder‘s velour shirt and helped themselves to a salacious peek at her famously perky breasts. ”She’s not wearing a bra,“ the defense attorney cried, his voice filled with indignation. Throughout the trial he evinced a range of carefully calibrated emotions -- caustic, sarcastic, disbelieving and, at this moment, outraged. ”What this shows you,“ Geragos continued, ”is what was really going on here was not a bust for a simple theft.“

Throughout the first four and a half days of testimony, Geragos, 45, ignored the implications of his initial remarks, and focused instead on what he hoped to convince the jury was the central weakness of the prosecution‘s case. Assiduously sidestepping the train wreck that Ryder was, indeed, nabbed with goodies for which she had no receipt, Geragos instead mercilessly attacked the truthfulness of Saks’ security staff. From the prosecution‘s lead witness, store security chief Kenneth Evans, he elicited the admission that four sensor tags Ryder had allegedly clipped from the purloined items were not marked in a log when he placed them in a Saks evidence locker. ”I didn’t think they were necessary to prove that Winona Ryder had shoplifted on December 12,“ Evans said. Evans also acknowledged that he‘d never mentioned the recovered tags in his written report -- despite the fact that still stuck in the clothespin pincers of three tags were scraps that mated perfectly to holes in the stolen garments. How could such salient evidence be left out, Geragos seemed to say, unless it never existed in the first place? Evans’ colleague Colleen Rainey, who‘d testified that she peered through the jalousie slats in a dressing-room door and saw Ryder hunched on the floor dabbing a bloody finger and snipping sensor tags with orange-handled scissors, conceded that she too had omitted these obviously pertinent details from her written statements dated December 12 and 13.

Since the sensor-tag evidence never found its way into any of Saks’ original reports on the incident, and since at no time on the notorious hour-and-a-half Saks surveillance tape was Ryder seen snipping the tags, Geragos was asking jurors to believe that what they‘d been given was ”new and improved testimony.“

That was Ryder’s case -- if it could be called a case in the face of the overwhelming credibility of the prosecution witnesses, largely corroborated on tape -- until the middle of the afternoon last Friday.

Geragos summoned a disgruntled ex--Saks employee, Michael Shoar, to the stand. Shoar was not the most credible witness for the defense. Asked on cross-examination by the prosecutor, Ann Rundle, if he had an ax to grind against Saks, he said, ”Yes, I do,“ but later replied to the question ”Isn‘t it true you are very angry with Saks Fifth Avenue?,“ ”No, I am not.“ If the laughter from the audience and some of the jurors was any indication, many of them thought he was lying. Nonetheless, Shoar, a stylish man with moussed hair and a black four-button suit that made him look like the impresario of an after-hours club, brought out, in a single captivating line, what this trial was really all about. Shoar said that prosecution lead witness Ken Evans told him right after Ryder’s arrest, ”I will nail that Beverly Hills bitch for shoplifting charges.“

 

There it was, the pivot of the trial, reduced to one off-color remark. It almost didn‘t matter whether Shoar was telling the truth, although it should have been obvious to anyone paying close attention to the case that he was, in fact, telling a version of the truth when he recounted his eventful lunch with Evans. Evans reportedly said, while eating a sandwich at Piazza Rodeo in Beverly Hills, ”I’m going to bring her down one way or another.“ This is exactly the kind of boast one might expect to hear from a career security man who‘s got the dirt on a seemingly untouchable movie star. It is exactly how a security chief might feel after he’d captured a suspect red-handed, only to be caught up, as he testified, in a 20-minute strategy spree with corporate bigwigs in New York and L.A., who were debating if they ought to green-light his wish to surrender her to the BHPD. It is dripping with the class resentment -- and the motive to ”frame“ Ryder -- that Geragos had been hinting at throughout the trial. That tension, the love and the hate, which always exists between Hollywood celebrities and their fans, was hovering around the courtroom like a National Enquirer reporter at Tom Cruise‘s last-known watering hole. Money, fame and an apple-cheeked freshness were being taken down by the seething underclasses.

Geragos was employing inverse schadenfreude. His pitch, of course, was aimed at a jury that included not only Peter Guber, the former Sony chief who produced three of Ryder’s pictures, but a Sony paralegal, a UCLA film student whose wife is a Disney executive, a children‘s programming-development exec and a retired Beverly Hills ob-gyn to the stars. With so little else to use on her behalf, it was worth trying to appeal to these jurors’, and perhaps the others‘, sense of the propriety of their own lofty place in the social order. The victim in this case was not Saks, but Winona Ryder, and the injuries of class, Geragos was arguing, were being inflicted from below by department-store employees jealous of the actress’s charmed life. This was a message that should have had special appeal to what rightly, in Ryder‘s case, could be called a jury of one’s peers. And so, Ryder sat in court, demure as ever (though, at times, she shot withering looks at her courtroom adversaries), displaying her graceful posture and porcelain beauty against the prurient interest and low-priced couture of Saks‘ security personnel. In his closing remarks, Geragos called Ken Evans ”almost haughty, strutting,“ then added, as if offering dispensation, that there is ”no shame in coming back with a not-guilty verdict for Winona.“

The prosecution made a similar gambit, less before the jury -- because the facts were on its side -- than to the public at large. District Attorney Cooley wanted to send a message with this prosecution that the rich and famous don’t get special treatment on his watch. Yet from the start, Cooley miscalculated. He charged Ryder with a felony, but according to an opinion poll commissioned by the defense, 67 percent of county residents regarded this as ”a waste of taxpayer dollars.“ The poll, which cost roughly $10,000, was conducted by a Republican pollster, Kellyanne Conway. Conway found that nearly three out of four Angelenos thought that if the shoplifting tape did not involve a ”young, pretty, celebrity actress,“ the D.A. would not have so vigorously pursued the case. More than half of those polled felt Ryder was being treated unfairly by the D.A., believing that the case ”is just the latest example of how . . . Cooley puts politics before justice . . .“ And by a margin of nearly 3-to-1, registered voters said that if Cooley had been up for re-election this Tuesday, they‘d have voted against him.

Back in the courtroom of Judge Elden S. Fox, these figures played no direct role. Rundle, a sharp-eyed prosecutor who handled the jurors as if they were kindergartners on the first day of school, countered Geragos’ spin with a woeful concoction of pathos of her own. ”Saks‘ security were just good people doing their jobs. They had the misfortune to catch someone shoplifting, a person with resources, and then they were accused of being liars. Miss Ryder got a full and fair trial. But what about the Saks employees? They’ve been called names, had accusations thrown at them, had their personal lives turned upside down.“

 

On Wednesday, the jury returned its verdict, finding her guilty of vandalism and grand theft, and not guilty of burglary. Cooley may have won in the courtroom, but the outcome of this sideshow of class warfare will be up to the public to decide.


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