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Prosecution benevolent after guilty verdict

Beverly Hills, Nov. 7 (Reuters): After all the hype, all the insinuation and a defence conspiracy theory that could only have been written in Hollywood, actress Winona Ryder was convicted yesterday of shoplifting from one of the most upscale stores in Beverly Hills.

A jury that included at least three people from the entertainment industry convicted the Age of Innocence star of walking out of Saks Fifth Avenue last December with shopping bags stuffed full of $5,500 in designer tops, handbags, glittery rhinestone hair bows and socks.

Prosecutors, who suggested that Ryder may have stolen for thrills, said they would not seek jail time for the 31-year-old actress when she is sentenced on December 6, although the charges carry a possible prison sentence of up to three years.

The jury found her guilty of grand theft and vandalism but not guilty of commercial burglary. That charge required proof that she had gone to the store intending to steal.

Ryder did not testify in her own defence during a humiliating six-day trial, where her haul of ripped silk tops and leather handbags costing up to $700 each were put on display for all to see.

The Girl, Interrupted star, whose career has been on hold during the 10 months since her arrest, looked tense but poised in a standing-room-only courtroom as the verdicts were read.

She was whisked out of court and away from the media but her publicist told Reuters her car was followed by news helicopters and paparazzi. Ryder later issued a one-sentence statement thanking her family, friends and supporters for standing by her.

Why did she do it'

Why a rich celebrity should commit such a tawdry crime was left to guesswork. “I cannot get inside her head. She may have been stealing for the thrill of it, or to see if she could get away with it,” trial prosecutor Ann Rundle said yesterday.

Los Angeles district attorney Steve Cooley said he hoped the court would “address the problems of the defendant that may have led her to engage in the criminal conduct of which she now stands convicted.”

One of the jurors was quoted as telling the TV show Celebrity Justice that the jury was “especially impressed” by the merchandise displayed in court and thought the Saks security guards called as witnesses were “very credible and admirable.”

The unidentified juror said Ryder’s star status had “absolutely no impact whatsoever.” Ryder’s flamboyant attorney, Mark Geragos, declined to address the waiting media throng. His defence case was based on an elaborate alleged conspiracy involving planted evidence, perjury by Saks staff and singling out Ryder as a target because of her celebrity.

But Geragos’ main defence witness left with the courtroom reeling in laughter. The witness, a former Saks employee, testified that a Saks security manager had vowed to “nail” Ryder and would “make the evidence” to convict her. Under cross-examination, the witness admitted an unresolved personal grievance with Saks which led to a lawsuit and the store taking out a trespass warning against him. Rundle dismissed the defence case during the trial as “a story that could only have been written in Hollywood.”

The prosecution’s case against Ryder was overwhelming. It featured a 90-minute surveillance video of Ryder roaming around the store, dressed in a long coat, and struggling with multiple shopping bags while piling merchandise over her arm or under a garment bag.

The most damaging testimony came from a Saks security guard who testified to seeing Ryder in a Saks dressing room — not trying on designer gowns but kneeling on the floor with a bleeding finger, snipping security tags off handbags, wrapping up socks in tissue paper and hiding them in her shopping bags.

Four witnesses testified how polite, calm and apologetic Ryder had been after her arrest, claiming first that she thought her assistant had paid for the goods and then claiming she had been told by her director to shoplift in preparation for a movie role.

The “director” was never found. Most of the Saks witnesses did not recognise Ryder — some thought her a homeless woman.

Rundle said the prosecution would ask for “probation, community service and restitution to Saks” rather than jail time for Ryder. “I find Ryder to be very nice.

“This was never about her character, only her conduct.”

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