People Staff
October 28, 2002 12:00 PM

Winona Ryder’s long-delayed shoplifting trial finally opened in Los Angeles County superior court Oct. 15 with yet another anticlimax. The actress and her lead lawyer, Mark Geragos, were no-shows (due to a scheduling snafu, says Geragos), so Judge Elden S. Fox ordered a 24-hour delay. The glacial pace of courtroom activity, however, belies behind-the-scenes negotiating. Last month, sources say, prosecutors offered Ryder a deal: Plead guilty to one count of felony grand theft in return for a sentence of community service and up to three years probation—and likely no jail time. But inside or out, Ryder didn’t want “convicted felon” among her credits and rejected the offer.

Ryder’s case, which could reach opening arguments this week—barring any last-minute plea deals or broken bones (one pretrial hearing in June was delayed after a cameraman collided with Ryder’s elbow)—could shape up as a serious showdown. Believing he can win at trial, Geragos plans to attack the credibility of Saks Fifth Avenue security guards who say they saw the star snipping antitheft tags off items and leaving the Beverly Hills store last Dec. 12 with more than $6,000 in designer clothing.

Ryder has scored one victory: On Oct. 9 prosecutors asked Fox to drop drug-possession charges against her. (Geragos says Ryder, 30, had a prescription for the painkillers found in her purse.) Team Ryder has also denounced the remaining felony-theft charges as unfair, claiming that most first-time shoplifting suspects are charged with only misdemeanors and that Ryder’s fame is making her a target. “It’s clear to anybody who has followed the situation that she’s been overcharged,” Geragos says. “She’s been treated differently than anybody in my experience.” Counters Los Angeles County District Attorney’s Office spokeswoman Sandi Gibbons: “The charges filed against Ms. Ryder are the same charges that we would file against Jane Doe if we had evidence that she committed a similar crime.”

Of course, Jane Doe never headlined a multimillion-dollar movie. For actors a felony conviction can spell serious career trouble. “Even if there’s no jail time imposed, there would be more reporting requirements to a probation officer, serious travel restrictions and the problem of insurance, a biggie in the industry,” says Daniel Brookman, a former attorney for Robert Downey Jr. Geragos says Ryder is ready to fight. “This is an extremely trying situation,” he says, “but through it all she has really maintained her sense of humor and has handled it well.”

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