'Holy Crap! I Lost Louis Eugene Craft!'

Judge loses defendant in OC Jail for 494 days

Airlines lose luggage. Waiters lose food. Dry cleaners lose pants. Superior Court Judge Daniel J. Didier lost 53-year-old Louis Eugene Craft.

Craft was arrested in May 2003 on heroin and public-urination charges. Things looked bad for Craft. He already had two strikes stemming from a 1984 burglary conviction; if found guilty on the latest charges, he faced 25 years to life under California's Three Strikes law.

On July 25, 2003, he landed in Didier's courtroom, where public defender Kathleen Nordin argued Craft was incompetent to stand trial. Didier agreed. He asked county health officials for their advice on treatment. Meantime, Didier sent Craft back to the Orange County Jail.

"Incompetent" is a wonderfully antiseptic term for "nuts," and under California law, officials can't say specifically what made Craft—what makes any defendant—nuts, whether drug detoxing, delusions or whatever. The bottom-line test for competence is simple: Can a defendant participate in his own defense?

Three weeks after Didier's request, Health Care Agency officials filed their report with the judge: they recommended Craft spend time in Patton State, a mental hospital in San Bernardino.

And that's when the well-regarded judge temporarily lost his mind—or at least lost five-foot-eight-inch, 155-pound Craft.

On Aug. 13, 2003, according to an appeals court record, Didier received the county health report on Craft. But the judge did nothing. Why? Because he forgot.

And here's the irony: Didier wasn't just a judge. At the time, he was the supervising judge for the Felony Master Calendar, the guy who's supposed to manage the steady flow of defendants, defenders and prosecutors through the warren of local courtrooms. He's the guy who's supposed to make sure that someone like Craft—a convicted felon with a drug problem and no cash, a truck driver who has been deemed unable to defend himself—doesn't disappear in the county's criminal justice system.

And there's more: in his capacity as supervising judge for the Felony Master Calendar, Didier had attempted to make the courts more efficient by tossing out the one procedure that might have spared Craft 15 months in exile. In the old days, Didier would have ordered a status hearing 90 days after he asked for the county health agency's recommendations. But Didier found the 90-day clock cumbersome, unwieldy, unnecessary. He stopped holding status hearings. And so, time marched on. And on. Then, 494 days after he asked for their report—and we're just imagining this particular detail—Didier woke up on Dec. 14, 2004, and said, "Holy crap! I lost Louis Eugene Craft!"

Much finger-pointing ensued.

"This situation is, to put it mildly, a terrible bureaucratic blunder," wrote Senior Deputy District Attorney Brian Gurwitz in an October 2005 brief for the state court of appeal in Santa Ana. "Blame can fairly be attributed to the court, the prosecution and, perhaps most of all, to the petitioner's own counsel."

Not so, said the Orange County Public Defender's office, which represents Craft. They blame Didier for the "egregious" error. "Essentially, the court threw away the metaphorical key to the jailhouse and forgot about the defendant, leaving him to languish for 15 months," wrote deputy public defender Martin F. Schwarz.

Earlier this month, Schwarz asked the appeals court to do what Didier would not: dismiss the drug charge because of "oppressive pretrial incarceration," denial of a speedy trial and failure to observe due-process rights.

"Mr. Craft languished in the county jail utterly deprived of his personal liberty," said Schwarz. "The defendant had absolutely no hand in the delay."

The confinement, he says, was "illegal."

But Gurwitz told a three-member appeal court panel that Craft's right to a speedy trial had been suspended when the court found him incompetent. Dismissing the case would inappropriately "punish the People" for "what are essentially ineffective counsel issues" the defendant should have with his own public defenders, according to Gurwitz.

"It appears that [the public defender's office] ignored the most basic duty of the attorney-client relationship: namely, remembering that the client actually exists," Gurwitz said.

Craft is unavailable for comment, but there's no question he was annoyed when he finally saw the light of day again: during an April 2005 hearing, Didier tossed Craft out of the courtroom for allegedly disrupting the proceedings.

Though Didier says he can't see how his mistake hurt Craft, he said the situation was "terrible" and called for a meeting to determine what went wrong. Court officials won't discuss that powwow, but they say Didier has reinstituted the 90-day clock.

The court of appeal will determine this summer whether Craft should still be prosecuted. But there was this hopeful sign: unlike some other inmates, Craft emerged from his adventure in the Orange County Jail a far better man. Earlier this year, Judge Kazuharu Makino concluded that Craft had "regained" his competency.


rscottmoxley@ocweekly.com

 
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