JLife magazine recently traveled up to Los Angeles, to the sound stage of the break out, Emmy-nominated hit television show “Hot Bench.” The show was created by Judge Judy Sheindlin, everyone’s favorite “mensch” and, like “Judge Judy,” real small claims cases are brought before the court. However, “Hot Bench” features not one, but three judges, who hear these cases and then break for recess in their “chambers” to discuss the case at hand. All three then come back and deliver their verdict. One of these charismatic judges is Larry Bakman, who generously gave up his lunch break to give us the inside scoop on America’s newest court room television addiction.
Bakman: So let’s chat (smiles).
JLife: I see that you went to law school in Los Angeles, at Southwestern University, and did your under graduate studies here as well at UCLA. Are you a born and bred Californian? No, I’m from Detroit, but I transplanted very early on to Los Angeles.
Have you found that your undergraduate studies and major in history have helped you in your law career at all? Absolutely 0%. I find that law school has played a 0% role into my practice as an attorney. You know I shouldn’t say zero, but I find that law school doesn’t gear you up for the real world. It gives you the concepts of the law. So in a sense it does, but it doesn’t give you the valuable experience, that an internship would. And again it depends on the type of law. I find that for trial work you’re not going to find that kind of experience unless you’re actually in trial or doing an internship with a prosecution agency. That is how I got into the field myself. I was a certified law clerk for the City Attorney’s Office and was actually doing jury trials two years before I took the bar. I fell in love with it.
Speaking of the bar exam, which one did you find more difficult, the New York State Bar exam or the California State Bar Exam? They were both pretty tough (smiles). In New York, I was already an established attorney when I took the bar exam. I actually went to New York because I followed somebody I was involved with out there. There’s a part of the New York Bar Exam that involves wills and trusts. That part isn’t on the California Bar Exam… that is one difference. I also found the real estate portions of both bar exams equally difficult, but that’s probably because I don’t particularly like that area of law. However they are both tough exams. They are the two toughest bars in the union.
Speaking of areas of law that you enjoy, have you always been interested in criminal law? Did you gravitate towards that naturally? Yes, as I said before, I started as a certified law clerk for the City Attorney’s Office under a man named Burt Pines who then became a judge. Burt Pines was phenomenal and he was ahead of his time. We’re going back to the year 1977 when I joined the office, so he was very progressive. He brought a lot of gays into the office that were incredibly talented. People who really couldn’t find employment elsewhere because of the mindset back during that time. He also brought the office to the level of the highest paying public law office in the U.S.. I remember at the time that when I passed the bar I wanted to go to the DA’s office and prosecute felonies. The City Attorney’s ’s Office prosecuted misdemeanors and knock-down felonies… felonies that are reduced to misdemeanors. We made so much more money at the time being a Deputy City Attorney as opposed to a Deputy DA that I stuck with the City Attorney’s Office when they offered me the job. But I was doing jury trial work, which I could as a certified law clerk and I prosecuted a DUI case. That was my first-ever jury trial and I fell in love with it. I knew that’s what I wanted to do and I was decent at it so…
Have you found a lot of similarities working for the City Attorney’s Office, as well as having your own private practice? Yes very much so. Being a prosecutor gives you an advantage in terms of being a defense lawyer, because you can put on your prosecutor hat and look at the elements of the crime and know what you have to prove as a prosecutor.
Then you can put on the defense hat and say, “well those were the weak parts of the case.” If I were to prosecute as a defense attorney I would capitalize on the weak parts of the case. So I can look at it very differently.
It’s interesting, I was asked to give a guest lecture at Southwestern a year ago to a white-collar crime class. When I addressed the class I told them that the first thing you do as a prosecuting or defense attorney, is look at the jury instructions. Forget about the statute, forget about the case authority… just look at the jury instructions. These detail the elements of the crime that the prosecution has to prove. That will tell you where the prosecution’s weak spot(s) are, so you can capitalize on that as a defense attorney. Every crime is made up of different elements, such as A, B & C. The prosecution may have A and B, but C is problematic. So as a defense attorney you want to focus on that weak link. That’s what I learned.
Working for the City Attorney’s Office, is it the same set of rules as the DA’s office where you are signed different cases? Yes.
So you went from being told which cases you have to take, to then being able to choose which cases you take on in your private practice? Is that accurate? Well when I was a prosecutor we were assigned to different courtrooms. We had specially assigned cases. For instance, I had a vehicular manslaughter assigned to me where five people were killed. There was a semi-tanker truck that jack-knifed, exploded and then trapped five people in a vehicle in between the tanker and the center divider. It burned them to death. So some of the heavier cases were assigned to me, but typically we were assigned to either an arraignment court, master calendar court or trial court. I was somewhat of a primma donna and demanded that I be in a trial court. I used to threaten my boss and say I would transfer downtown and his conviction stats would go to hell (laughs). So he pretty much left me alone and I probably got away with a lot more than most people did. And then as a defense attorney you pretty much take what comes through the door, depending on finances. I transitioned from state crimes to federal and found my calling in federal court. I’ve been in federal court for the last 25 years. Working on RICO’s, narcotics conspiracies, frauds (security fraud, wire fraud and mail fraud) and that is what I enjoy. I truly fell in love with federal work.
You have a lot of experience dealing with hardened criminals… really calculating minds. That’s not to say that the people that come into these courts aren’t at the same level, but they are small claims court cases. How do you approach the cases on “Hot Bench” differently or do you approach them differently, at all? You know, that’s an interesting question and it’s interesting because my first year here on the show was a difficult transitional time for me. I had been doing jury trials for 20- 25 years in federal court. Every RICO entity, Aryan Brotherhood, Mexican Mafia, Nazi Low Rider case I was handed…these are really bad people, and typically those cases are prosecuted through the use of snitch testimony. You have people that flip that are members of the organization. The cross examination that I was used to was to go for the jugular. I mean it’s heavy and it’s aggressive and the tone of voice is different. I will take a far more aggressive stand in cross with a government cooperator then I will a third-party precipitant who just happened to be a no one involved in the organization.
So when I got to the show here, I would watch myself on tape and I would say to myself “you’re over-the-top, these people are all small claims litigants. Nobody died, there is no government snitch on the stand, dial it back.” And that was the most difficult thing for me to do with respect to the show and I think I’ve got it dialled in now.
Nothing really excites me to the point where I would get as aggressive as I would in a jury trial in a federal court. That’s the learning experience of doing the show for me. I love the cases that have a criminal element. Earlier today there was a young lady who was 20 years old who transported a kilo of marijuana across state lines, from Oregon to Nevada. I didn’t want to ask her too many questions because she thinks the state case is over. That may very well be, but the federal courts have a five-year statute. The Feds may still be looking at her and they may ultimately end up indicting her for transportation and possession for sale. What I did was give her a lecture on what kind of time she’s looking at and hopefully scared the hell out of her.
How do you feel about the saying, “never ask a question in court that you don’t know the answer to?” That is the golden rule (laughs). What you have to remember about the show is that there is a legal aspect and there is also an entertainment aspect to it. Clearly, I don’t go as deep into a case as I would if I was in front of a jury trying a case. We have time constraints and we have factors that we have to consider that we don’t in a real courtroom (where we have days to do this). A lot of these cases quite frankly I would go far deeper into if we had the ability to do that, but we don’t. It is a television show. We try to do it as accurately and real as possible and get to the heart of it, but they are all real cases. And you have to understand I may not go as deep into the cases here, but I try them just as I would in a courtroom. I try to handle them as realistically as possible and I rule the same way I would as if I were sitting in a courtroom in an LA County Superior Court. So the cases are real and the decisions we make truly are real based on how we perceive the underlying case, the credibility and the law.
Did you grow up Jewish? Yes, I was bar mitzvah’d, but unfortunately I only go to temple on High Holidays now.
Tell me a little bit about the charity work you do with New Directions for Youth (NDY)? Well, the charity is wonderful; it works primarily with young kids in North Hollywood who are at risk due to abuse or drugs. These kids are mainly minorities who come from an impoverished, gang-infested area of North Hollywood. NDY bought a building on Lankershim and they converted the building into a haven (especially during summer and after school) for these kids.
All the funding is through charitable contributions, and it helps get them off the street. NDY also helps the families of these kids. I had an idea years ago when I was working on a federal panel. I had a number of kids—when I say kids I mean 18-20-year-olds—primarily from South-Central and they were getting charged with bank robberies. And the OG’s (the original gangsters, the older guys) would get these kids to do the bank robberies and to take guns and go in.
In a bank robbery case, if you have a gun that’s a 924C violation. The first 924C violation is a seven-year mandatory “consec” to the underlying bank robbery sentence. The second 924C is a 25-year consecutive mandatory sentence to the underlying bank robbery as well as all other 924c allegations. So, some of these kids would have three, four and five robberies. The gun charge alone would be a 100- to 150-year mandatory sentence that the judge has to impose along with the bank robbery exposure. So I thought, after I’d had a rash of about five or six cases like this in a row, that I have to talk to these kids. If I can reach just one kid at a junior high level and teach them about the criminal justice system, maybe I can make a difference.
Typically, you’d have one kid go into the bank with the gun and another kid sitting out in the car. Whatever happens inside the bank with that gun… the kid in the car is also liable for. So I got together a U.S. Attorney and a federal judge by the name of J. Spencer Letts, and I came up with this idea. Let’s get into the schools and talk about the criminal justice system. Let’s see if we can reach and educate some of these kids. I never really executed on it (Spencer passed away), but I spoke with NDY about it and they thought that it’d be a great idea to talk to the families of our kids and the kids themselves.
I went down to some of the parks in the area and met with the families. I informed them about conspiratorial liability and it proved to be more popular than I expected. They’ve asked me to do it again a number of times. That’s my involvement, and they also just invited me to be a board member. So it is a great cause, I’m really into it.
I want to expand my role as well. When I was the with the City Attorney’s’s Office, I was really tight with Jimmy Hahn. Jim became the Mayor of LA and we’ve stayed in touch, somewhat. I thought I would get in touch and try to execute the plan that I had years back about getting into the school system. I mean, they don’t even teach government!
When I went to high school, they used to teach government so you knew at least a little bit about the separation of powers. The executive, judicial and legislative branches. They don’t teach that now and kids don’t have a clue today of how our system works.
That’s scary about conspiratorial liability. I didn’t realize that. Yes it is scary, and that can be applied to just about any instance. For example, you have a guy who is a lookout during a drug deal. Well, the lookout is equally liable for the drugs that are being passed. I had an Aryan Brotherhood client named Richard Terflinger, who was facing a federal death penalty case. Terflinger was doing life in prison in state court because he was involved, years back, in a robbery where he was the driver. Richard and another guy robbed a liquor store, the guy who went in shot and killed the liquor store owner. Richard was prosecuted for murder… he was an aider and abetter and so he was equally liable under the law.
As a murderer he got 25 years to life and then he rose within the prison system, to become the head of the Aryan Brotherhood. Then, the Brotherhood ordered a hit on a family outside prison walls so the Feds got involved, and they indicted him on a federal death penalty case. But he started out as just a driver. Everybody is equally liable if you participate. You are a cog in the wheel and that’s a conspiracy. Another example of the type of cases I have dealt with is one like this: you have a kid who’s in college and his friends call him on a Friday night. They ask him, “Hey can you score some blow? We want to get high tonight and party…”
He says, “Sure let me do that.”
He makes the phone call to a supplier he knows, but what he doesn’t know is that the Feds are listening in. They have an ongoing wiretap investigation in place because they’re already targeting the supplier. Now they hear the college kid calling in, college kid then gives the blow to his friends, they all party… Guess what? The college kid is part and parcel of the whole conspiracy. He only buys an “eight ball,” which is 3 1/2 grams, but the Feds indict him and hold him responsible for all the kilos of cocaine that the conspiracy is involved in. Now he’s looking at a 10-year minimum mandatory sentence, even though he was only responsible for the 3 1/2 grams.
Geeze, well we certainly learned a lot today! (Smiles) I bet.
Tracey Armstrong Gorsky is a contributing writer to Jlife Magazine.