After a three-day trial, a jury today convicted former Orange School trustee Steve Rocco of stealing a half-empty bottle of Heinz ketchup from a Chapman University cafeteria last September. Their harsh verdict brought a momentous, if perhaps tragic or comical end to a gloriously stupid trial newsworthy only for its sheer craziness.
A few highlights, in no particular order:
*During voire dire, public defender Erica Gambale asked prospective jurors whether they'd be distracted by the strange, napkin-sized bandage on Rocco's head. Several jurors raised their hands. Later, during prosecutor Lynda Fernandez' cross-examination of Rocco, she repeatedly asked him if he'd "be comfortable" telling the jury why he has a bandage on his head. "No, I wouldn't," Rocco replied. Fernandez also made Rocco stammer with visible nervousness when she asked him to say when he'd been a substitute teacher. (Rocco won his 2004 election to the Orange school board by claiming to be a substitute teacher) He couldn't remember where or when he'd taught. "It was a long time ago," he finally said.
*Yes, ketchup bottle fans, you read that correctly: Rocco testified on his own behalf, despite impassioned pleas to the contrary by Gambale, who even asked the judge to note for the record her objection to Rocco taking the witness stand. During her opening arguments, Gambale had told the jury that Rocco had made "an honest mistake" by taking the half-empty, unrefrigerated ketchup bottle from the cafeteria. (He was detained minutes later by campus security, who allegedly retrieved it from a shopping bag in his bicycle basket.) But on the witness stand, Rocco testified that he'd never put the bottle in his bag--he'd immediately "recycled it" and that the security guards then planted the bottle in his bag in an effort to frame him because he was a "public official" who had "enemies." (Rocco also asserted that people have tried to plant marijuana in his bicycle basket).
*Rocco took detailed notes throughout the trial, presumably for use in the event he appeals the case, or possibly to document evidence of the Partnership's role in the proceedings--read our "Rocco Loco" archives for more info about the Partnership--and on the last day of the trial, he carried a trio of unidentifiable but 70s-looking vinyl albums into the courtroom.
*An Orange police officer testified that he didn't bother booking the ketchup bottle into evidence--or even take a photo of it--because after giving the bottle back to the Chapman security guards, he thought it wasn't worth wasting any time or money" to do that. His stunningly common-sense declaration seemed to question the basic validity of the ketchup caper trial, at least from a perspective that values time and money.
The jury deliberated for about three hours to reach its verdict. They solemnly refused to answer reporters' questions as they filed out of the courtroom, apparently united in their resolve to not to waste a single further moment of their lives on the most ridiculous waste of county courtroom resources in recent memory. Rocco was slightly more accommodating.
"This isn't over," he declared. "I'll make it easy for you. Give me your cards and I'll have a press conference tomorrow at my lawyer's office. (Rocco's "lawyer," Fernando Leone," is actually his former estate attorney, and since he now lives in Palm Springs, asked if the Weekly would host the conference, which the Weekly has declined to do.)
"Is this is a victory for the Partnership?" I asked.
"Ha ha ha," Rocco replied. "You'll find out."
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"Was justice served?" I inquired.
"No," he answered.
"Are Orange County's condiments safe?"
"Yes," Rocco said and then he disappeared around the corner, perhaps plotting his next act of food item-related judicial subversion, or perhaps simply wishing he'd pled no loco contendre.