Winona Ryder trial set to begin

Oct. 24, 2002 at 3:30 AM
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BEVERLY HILLS, Calif., Oct. 24 (UPI) -- The much-delayed trial of Winona Ryder is set to get under way in Beverly Hills Thursday, more than 10 months after the Oscar-nominated actress was accused of stealing $6,000 worth of merchandise from Saks Fifth Avenue.

Publicity surrounding the case has been building ever since the star of "Girl, Interrupted" and "Little Women" was arrested on Dec. 12, 2001. Officials in the Los Angeles County District Attorney's office said they were preparing for extensive media coverage of the trial and large crowds outside Superior Court in Beverly Hills.

An international press corps will be on hand, in what might appear to some as a cross between the O.J. Simpson trial and the Golden Globe Awards. "Free Winona" T-shirts have been selling well online and at retail outlets, and Ryder has been the subject of countless latenight TV jokes -- some of which she made herself on "Saturday Night Live" when she appeared to promote the movie "Mr. Deeds."

A contingent of L.A. County sheriff's deputies will be deployed at the courthouse to try to maintain some distance between Ryder and the press corps. One of the case's numerous delays occurred in June when Ryder's elbow collided with a TV camera -- resulting in a fractured elbow as well as a disruption of the court schedule.

The case will be heard by Judge Elden Fox, who recently dismissed a drug charge against Ryder at the request of the prosecution. When police arrested Ryder they found some prescription drugs -- but no prescription -- in her bag. Prosecutors asked last week that the drug charge be dropped after the defense produced evidence that Ryder was not illegally possessing drugs.

Ryder -- who pleaded innocent to charges of grand theft, commercial burglary and vandalism -- has been free on $20,000 bail since her arrest. Prosecutors accused her of stealing designer hats, socks, purses and hair accessories after clipping security sensor tags off the merchandise.

Ryder's lawyer accused the D.A.'s office of headhunting. Mark Geragos has called the prosecution "overzealous," and charged prosecutors with going after Ryder because she is famous. He even filed a motion arguing that the District Attorney's office should not be permitted to prosecute the case because they were clearly going after a celebrity.

The judge denied the motion.

Geragos insists his client has the receipts to prove she didn't steal anything, and he is confident a trial will clear her name.

"Winona has expressed to me that she wants to go to trial," he said. "She wants to put this behind her."

Geragos said he is confident a trial will clear Ryder's name.

"I don't go to trial unless I think I can win."

If Geragos loses, his client could face up to three years in prison. But lawyers on both sides agree that prison time is unlikely, given that this would be Ryder's first offense. In the event of a conviction, probation is the most likely punishment.

Earlier negotiations on a plea bargain broke down and both sides appear determined to try the case, but there has been talk that the judge might reduce the charges to misdemeanors, which could clear the way for a settlement.

The case took on something of a media circus air Wednesday when a Los Angeles TV station carried a report suggesting juror misconduct. The station withdrew the report after the D.A.'s office reminded editors that under California law, they call the matter to trial first, and then they pick a jury.

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