Wednesday, May 24, 2006


By Tom Adler

Bob Coronevsky was a large affable man standing about 6’4” with a softly rounded belly. Gregarious and well liked by the jailers and inmates at the County Jail in El Centro it was hard to believe the rumors about his having been a hit man for the CIA. In some circles he was referred to as “Gorilla” based on another rumor that after he had “hit” someone in Mexico, he was caught but escaped from the jail with the assistance of the jail nurse who later became his bride. His present crime, if believed, belied his friendly demeanor. The Imperial County District attorney had charged him with murdering a diamond merchant who was passing through this small desert farming community. The crime had taken place at a musty motel on the outskirts of town. It was an unusual crime for the area but what made it even more unusual in a broader sense was the fact that Coronevsky had been in jail for a number of years without ever having a trial. When I first learned about the case I was told he didn’t even have a lawyer in spite of the fact that he was facing the death penalty. As a volunteer lawyer for the ACLU I believed in the work which entailed monthly meetings with my ACLU colleagues on the legal panel. We had great fun reviewing complaints that poured in every month from every form of wacko in the City about every imaginable perceived wrong. However sprinkled in with all the nuts were cases of great interest and sometimes importance which made volunteering worth the effort.

So it was with some curiosity that I decided to drive to El Centro to see what it was all about. The town was a little over 100 miles away and I was accompanied by my investigator George, a former secret service agent, who always expected me, and everyone else, to be shot at any moment and Diane, a smart new lawyer. I always tried to have a smart lawyer by my side in case a complicated issue presented itself.

As we drove through the barren desert to investigate the situation I remembered the story of the legendary ACLU lawyer, Al Wirin, who in the late 50’s or early 60’s had gone to “the valley”, as locals called El Centro, to represent some farm workers who at that time were having continual labor problems with the farmers. Al was in bed in his motel room when the pick up trucks roared up to his door. The farmers, an independent sort of self starters were not happy that the ACLU was mucking about in their affairs. It didn’t help much that the lawyer they sent was a Jew from Los Angeles. Not being familiar with the rule of law, or not much caring for it, they burst into Al’s room with ropes in hand and proceeded to tie him up, drag him outside and threw him in the bed of one of the trucks. In a display of extraordinary good will they didn’t kill him, just drove him out in the middle of the desert and dumped him with the usual warning about “……if we ever see you again…..etc”.

I mentioned that Coronevsky hadn’t had a trial but that wasn’t exactly accurate. He sort of had one. The story that later unfolded was that the trial had started with a defense attorney from San Diego representing him. So many jurors were required for the selection process that they couldn’t all fit into the courtroom. The judge, coming from a small county that had to improvise appropriate facilities for special occasions such as the Lettuce Festival came up with a resourceful solution. He decided to use the movie house across the street from the courthouse for the trial. It seemed perfect. The two counsel tables and a bench for the judge were set up on the stage, the jurors sat in the theater seats and Coronevsky and two deputy sheriffs sat in the projection booth looking down on the proceedings from high above in the rear of the theater. To make sure his projection equipment wasn’t tampered with, the theater’s owner/projectionist joined them in the booth. No one in the booth was particularly interested in the proceedings below. At that time lengthy and often boring jury selection was the norm so the projectionist agreed to project movies on the wall of the booth. Coronevsky requested a Walt Disney movie but was outvoted by the deputies who learned that the projectionist had a collection of porno movies which apparently were hard to come by in El Centro.

And so it went, juror number 23 related his family’s relationship to law enforcement while the deputies and Coronevsky sat watching the nuances of fellatio.

On the first day of jury selection lunch time rolled around and the deputies realized that no one had brought sandwiches from the jail; a minor administrative error that the resourceful deputies deftly handled in what seemed to them to be the logical thing to do. They took Coronevsky down the street, albeit in leg irons, to the local Mexican restaurant where all the courthouse regulars ate. With a clanging sound they sat down in a booth and were munching tacos when the door swung open and in walked the Sheriff of Imperial County who, along with many other government types, regularly ate in the popular restaurant. The Sheriff, having had more law enforcement training than the deputies, realized that this practice could be criticized from a public safety perspective. The thought also crossed the Sheriff’s mind that he had a jail full of inmates chewing on bologna sandwiches in their cells who would jump at the chance to sue him for a denial of equal protection. Bologna just doesn’t have the same nutritional value as a carne asada burrito and a cheese enchilada and then of course there is the issue of the difference in the luncheon surroundings. In any event, as the story was told to me, the Sheriff after uttering a few profanities at his deputies ordered Coronevsky taken back to jail. Another constitutional crisis avoided.

After arriving in El Centro we headed toward the El Centro Public Defenders Office, which I soon learned, was located in one of the seedier motels in the valley

As we pulled up to the “PD Motel” we were met by a curly blond headed young man who introduced himself as Chris Plourd, a brand new lawyer with virtually no felony experience who had no file, no money to hire experts and no help. He was assigned to the case. Fortunately Chris, who was to become one of the finest attorneys in the region, knew enough to know he was in over his head and made the call for help which led us to the desert that afternoon.

Chris filled us in on some of the details. Coronevsky’s trial never really got off the ground since the San Diego attorney wasn’t being paid by the County and didn’t feel that a capital murder case was how he wanted to spend his pro bono hours. So several years before our arrival and after the porno lunch caper the case was assigned to the Public Defender of the County of Imperial who decided to keep the case rather than assign it to one of his three deputies. After looking over the facts he decided that the main line of defense involved interviewing a witness in Hawaii so he flew off to the islands, I assume with his swimming trunks, and on the County’s dime to personally do the interview. Sometime after he returned, tanned and ready to get on the right side of the law, he quit his job as the Public Defender and went to work for the District Attorney who was prosecuting the case. Lest he be called upon to remember any of the details of his work he took the entire file with him to the District Attorneys Office where, all efforts to have it returned were unsuccessful. So with Coronevsky’s defenses securely in the possession of the prosecutor, the case was taken over by the second in command in the Public Defenders Office who was shortly thereafter appointed to the bench. With his second lawyer now the prosecutor and his third lawyer now a judge Coronevsky’s options were running out. There were only two lawyers left in the public defender’s office to handle the case. One was known for his aversion to work and a love of sick leave. The other was Chris Plourd.

I was curious why Coronevsky hadn’t been jumping up and down demanding a trial during his years of confinement. As the story unfolded it turned out that he kind of liked jail. The jailers had made him a trustee and with his governmental background the other inmates respected him and it wasn’t such a bad life. After all, as long as he was in jail he remained unexecuted. There was a certain pragmatic logic to the entire affair. But Bob was no shrinking violet. When pushed he could take aggressive action. As an example at one point during his stay the jail doctor had found a potassium deficiency in Coronevsky’s blood work and told the Sheriff to give him a banana every day. The jailers who apparently didn’t take kindly to this type of prisoner coddling mumbled something about “…..we ain’t got no stinkin’ bananas” and refused. Coronevsky, a longtime advocate of adequate prisoner health care, filed what was later referred to as the “Banana Writ” and won the right to, if not a lawyer, a banana a day. All nice and legal like.

So it was that I became involved in the case. George and Diane and I spoke to Chris and met Coronevsky, who was indeed a pleasant fellow. It would be nice to weave yarns about my role in the case but it wasn’t nearly as interesting as what had already happened. The County of Imperial simply wouldn’t pay for a lawyer to defend him and no one in the Public Defender’s Office was qualified to represent a defendant in a capital murder case. We returned to San Diego and Diane went about filing the legal documents and I subpoenaed the entire Board of Supervisor’s to appear at a hearing in the Superior Court in El Centro to explain why they wouldn’t pay.

Several weeks later the three of us walked into the courthouse in El Centro ready to make the Constitution a living document. On the way down George kept telling me to stick close to him because his sources had advised him that they were going to kill me. As he spoke he continually looked out the rearview mirror. But then George always looked out the rear view mirror and spoke of imminent violence. I asked Diane if she was scared and she laughed so I relied on her superior intelligence and relaxed. Besides George was packing the largest gun I had ever seen. The reality of the situation was that there was some room for concern since the Chairman of the Board of Supervisor’s was a powerful force in the valley, carried a cane and at one point had used it to attack the deputy public defender who was representing Bob at the time. Apparently the Chairman had decided that Bob was guilty and anyone who wanted to waste money in his defense should get an old fashioned thrashing. Word on the street was that he was elected on a ticket which advocated balancing the budget through public beatings.

As we entered the lobby of the courthouse a deputy sheriff approached me with a dark look about him and came within inches of my face and in a low voice said” Are you Adler?”. George inched closer and moved his hand to his jacket pocket area. I replied ‘Yes, I am”. “Well, I’m the one who served the subpoena on the Chairman and I just wanted to tell you something”. George was now on high alert. “Yes what is it”, I said. The deputy now had a very serious look on his face “Go get that son of a bitch”. He then turned on his heel and turned away. Things were looking up.

The hearing only lasted a few hours. The judge was knowledgeable and unfazed by the politics. His order was straight and to the point. The County Auditor, appropriately named Mr. Titsworth, was to pay for a private attorney to represent Coronevsky. As he left the bench the judge asked me to come back to his chambers. I sat down and he asked if I would take the murder case. I explained to him that I didn’t feel comfortable taking a case that I had forced the county to pay for but I assured him that I would find an attorney in San Diego who would take it. I already had someone in mind.

Steve Feldman was an ex-public defender who came to work in my firm and quickly developed a reputation of being tough, smart and once he had bitten your leg he would never let go. Steve was delighted to take what proved to be an interesting case and to say he ran with it would be an understatement. By the time he was done with the case Mr. Titsworth himself, as the California Supreme Court later observed “took up residence at the Imperial County Jail” for refusing to pay for the defense. Titsworth had fallen on his own sword in backing the Board of Supervisors in their assessment that payment of the $13,314 requested would “bankrupt the County”. The Supreme Court, ever vigilant to the truth, noted that in their view and pursuant to generally accepted principles of subtraction the County’s $2.3 million dollars in their general fund was a greater amount than that requested.

By the time the case was over Coronevsky had been represented by eight different lawyers, including three public defenders who later were hired by the district attorney’s office and as a result the District Attorney was relieved of his responsibilities and the Attorney General took over the prosecution. And of course Titsworth was represented by the County Counsel. The County had succeeded in taking a straightforward murder case and turning it into a legal and financial orgy.

With all the preliminary fee wrangling behind him Steve sought and obtained a change of venue to Orange County and then tried the case and won an acquittal. The legal defense, I’ve been told, revolved around a time of death issue. I personally think it was a combination of good lawyering and bad karma-the county deserved to lose.

Several weeks later I got a call from Bob thanking me for the work I did and “By the way I’m in the shrimp business and I’d like to come down to San Diego and give you some shrimp as a way of saying thanks”. Since I had a policy of never accepting shrimp from clients who had been acquitted of murder I thanked him and declined. Lawyers all have their little quirks. I heard that Bob had a heart attack and died shortly after the trial. I’m not sure if there was an autopsy and I didn’t ask. I was busy with this other case which involved…………………….
©2006 Tom Adler