Witness shocker throws trial in turmoil

For days Chad Hummel had been uncharacteristically quiet as the trial of famed private eye Anthony Pellicano and four codefendants wound down this week. Normally Hummel’s baritoned objections could be heard ricocheting off the walls on behalf of his client, former LAPD Sergeant Mark Arneson, who stands accused of providing Pellicano with confidential information on private citizens gleaned from law enforcement databases. No more so than last week, when the government pounded Arneson, who testified on his own behalf, with questions about a bankruptcy filing he denied preparing and which he claimed was entered with a forged signature.

Today, as though to rub it into Arneson and Hummel’s faces, Assistant U.S. Attorney Daniel Saunders called Phyllis Miller to the witness stand during the government’s rebuttal phase. Miller was on hand to simply verify that she’d met Arneson in 1998 and had helped guide his ultimately successful attempt to stave foreclosure on his Rancho Palos Verdes home. Saunders quickly finished with Miller, who came off as a pleasant, middle-aged church lady with a mane of hair that was an indeterminate shade of orange. Then, at 10:17, Hummel strode to the lectern and with cold fury got Miller to admit that her company, the Child Technology Institute, had had its nonprofit status withdrawn by California. More important, her husband and business partner, David Miller, had been convicted for fraud and forgery and was now in state prison. Finally, Hummel asked, wasn’t it a fact that Arneson’s signatures on the bankruptcy petitions had been forged by David Miller?

The implications hit the courtroom like a comet: The Millers, Hummel accused, had a track record of having destroyed the credit ratings of Arneson and many others in a “massive fraud scheme” involving stolen notary equipment, and that only ended with David Miller’s arrest. Phyllis Miller never had a chance to reply to Hummel’s last question. Instead, Judge Dale Fischer cut her off and warned her of self-incrimination and recommended that she allow the court to send over a Federal Public Defender for her.

“You’re not to leave this floor without my permission,” Fischer told Miller.

In an instant Hummel had turned the tables on his client’s tormentors. Saunders had barely finished wiping the egg off his face when a bewildered-looking Angel Navarro, summoned from the FPD’s office, arrived to announce he was instructing his new client, Phyllis Miller, not to answer any more questions, until he could determine if the statute of limitations had run out for any crimes in which Miller might implicate herself through further testimony. While Hummel requested Miller be remanded into custody as a flight risk, Fischer allowed her to remain free.

For the next few days the government and defense lawyers will research the impact of Phyllis Miller’s testimony.

“I suppose I’m going to have to declare a mistrial if this can’t be resolved,” said a suddenly fatigued Judge Fischer in response to Hummel request for a mistrial for Arneson. Meanwhile the other defendants’ attorneys will undoubtedly look for benefits for their own clients in today’s events.

Earlier in the week defense witness Barry Barnett had surprised the court, as he stepped down after testifying for defendant Ray Turner, by declaring how impressed he was with Fischer’s courtroom.

“This is not no Judge Judy,” Barnett said. “It’s Perry Mason all the way up in here!” How right he was.

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