Seeking Justice And Fairness in Topeka, And Arriving At Stupid

With a song!

With a song!

In Topeka, Kansas, Judge Mark Braun was confronted with a legal and ethical dilemma, thought hard, and arrived at ridiculous decision, with the of best intentions.

Defendant Lance Franklin was in the fourth day of his trial for rape when he decided that he didn’t like his lawyer’s face or something and thus sucker-punched him in open court. Franklin is  is six-feet, three-inches tall and weighs at least 260 pounds; he devoted attorney weighs about 170 pounds and is considerably shorter. This sort of thing happens now and then (it happened in Kansas earlier this year) does not go over well with juries. Imagine, for example, if Mike Brown hadn’t been killed and was being tried for assaulting an officer, and he did this to his lawyer right after his mother had told the jury what a gentle, promising child he was. The display would, one would think, undermine his credibility when he swore he was just meekly surrendering….well, with the racist jurors, anyway.

Thus, when this happens, judges declare mistrials because a fair trial is no longer possible. Ah, but Judge Braun has seen it all: you can’t trick him. He knows that if Kansas defendants see one accused criminal get to start all over because he cold-cocks his lawyer, they’ll all do it if the trial is going badly. So after senior assistant district attorney Dustin Curry begged him not to reward Franklin for his unmannerly gesture, Braun ruled that declaring a mistrial would “essentially put a target on any defense attorney’s back.”

The trial goes on, presumably with a new lawyer. And, when Franklin is found guilty, a successful appeal and new trial is virtually guaranteed, because a fair trial after something like this is impossible.

The judge was trying to be careful and considerate; he should be commended for not making an automatic decision to call a mistrial just because that’s what every other judge has done. He kept an open mind, and listened to a novel argument. Sometimes, however, an open mind lets stuff in causes havoc. In his effort to prevent lawyers from becoming in-trial punching bags, he guaranteed one defendant a second trial, and just moved that target somewhere else.

For example, I’m pretty sure attacking the jury mid-trial is a sure-fire recipe for a mistrial if battering one’s lawyer won’t work.

Or better yet, deck the judge!

Deck the Judge to get a mistrial
Fa-la-la-la-la, la-la-la-la
Punching lawyers s’not for this trial
Fa-la-la-la-la, la-la-la-la
If your trial is going badly
Fa-la-la, la-la-la, la-la-la.
Rush the bench while swinging madly.
Fa-la-la-la-la, la-la-la-la!


Pointer: ABA Journal

Facts: Capital-Journal

A Shocking Legal Ethics Violation In Utah

So...would you like to revise your testimony about the harmless electric shock, Professor?

“So…would you like to revise your testimony about the ‘harmless electric shock,’ Professor?”

(The title is an uncreative and obvious pun, but on the other hand, how often do I have a chance to make it?)

I always advise lawyers that whenever they have a sudden inspiration that involves a trial tactic that they have never heard of anyone else trying, they need to stop and examine whether there are ethical issues involved. Here is a good example of why that’s a good idea.

Electricity expert Athanasios Meliopoulos, while testifying to dispute the claim of Utah dairy farmers who had sued a power company alleging that current from its plant harmed cattle grazing nearby,  said under oath that 1.5 volts could not be detected by a human being.

Don Howarth, an experienced Los Angeles litigator who represented the farmers, decided to undermine the expert’s testimony on cross-examination by giving Meliopoulos  a joke shop pen that was rigged to deliver an electric shock. Howarth told the witness that the retractable pen contained a 1.5-volt AAA battery and challenged him to click it and “tell the jury whether you feel it or not.” What he did not tell the witness, or the jury, or the judge, was that in addition to the AAA battery, the pen also contained a transformer that boosted the battery voltage to up to 750 volts, enough to deliver “a harmless powerful shock,” according to the pen’s packaging.

Meliopoulos, a Georgia Tech professor, pushed the ball-point pen’s button  and was indeed shocked enough to cause  his body to jerk and force him to drop the pen.

How unethical is this? The judge, in fining the lawyer $3000 and issuing other sanctions, listed the breaches: Continue reading

Our Incompetent Media, Making America Ignorant, Case # 58755

Mike Ferrin, making up Constitutional law as he goes along...

Sirius-XM’s Mike Ferrin, making up Constitutional law as he goes along…

Driving along, minding my own business, on the way to picking up some cranberry juice and dishwasher detergent, I chanced to turn on channel 89 on Sirius-XM, where, by no special intent of mine, the baseball show “Power Alley,” with hosts Mike Ferrin and Jim Duquette (the latter a former and probably future big league general manager) was covering the A-Rod suspension story, currently the hottest scandal in sports.  Ferrin is a baseball commentator, and he was railing about the statement of a lawyer, quoted on the show, that it was Alex Rodriquez’s refusal to testify at his hearing before a union arbitrator that sealed his doom and resulted in his season long suspension by Major League Baseball being upheld.

“What about his Fifth Amendment rights?” Ferrin was saying. “I am very disturbed by this. Rodriguez doesn’t have to testify! He has every right to refuse! I find it very disturbing that we are being told that a man lost his livelihood because he asserted his rights as an American! It’s just wrong!”

At this point, my car is weaving all over the road as I try to find my cell phone to call the show (I had left it at home) and scream. The Fifth Amendment, which among other things protects citizens against compelled testimony against themselves under threat of government action, has nothing to do with Alex Rodriquez and his arbitration hearing—-Mike Ferrin, you incompetent, blathering fool. The Fifth Amendment does not apply to private proceedings, of which a labor grievance arbitration is one.  Continue reading

Ethics Hero Emeritus: Willie Reed ( 1937-2013)

Willie Reed

I began the day, to my surprise, with tears in my eyes from reading an obituary on the front page of today’s Washington Post.

The story announced the death of Willie Reed, who as an African American teenager in 1955, risked his life by testifying in a Mississippi court against the white men who had tortured and murdered Emmet Till, another black teenager, for the Jim Crow “crime” of allegedly whistling at a white woman.

The intensity of my emotional reaction surprised me. I think it was the product of being reminded of the horrific tragedy that befell Till and other black citizens at the height of segregation, and being slapped in the face with the reality, known to me but kept deep in the place in my brain where the ugliest things are sealed away to keep me from incurable despair, of the deranged hate that festered so long—and destroyed so many— in the country I love. I was also overcome with admiration and wonder at the almost unimaginable courage of Reed, who knew that by testifying in open court he was simultaneously  guaranteeing that he would be marked for Till’s fate for the rest of his life. Maybe most of all, I wept out of anger at my ignorance and the warped priorities of our culture and educational system, which ensures that we know the names and life stories of insignificant narcissists like Kim Kardashian, embarrassing political leaders like Michele Bachman, greedy athletes like Lance Armstrong, and cynical demagogues like Al Sharpton, but know nothing of the lives and deeds of unglamorous American heroes like Willis Reed. I consider myself an educated man, but I had never heard of him, which means I am not educated enough. I wish I could apologize to Reed. I wish I could shake his hand. I wish I could say, “thank you.” Continue reading

Welcome To The World Of “Expert Witnesses”

Then there’s the arrow that reads, “Willingness to say what we need to win the case.”

It doesn’t happen often, but it does pay well and can be interesting: occasionally I accept an engagement as a testifying ethics expert in a law suit. I have a rule, however, that surprisingly (or not) seems to come as a shock to many potential clients. They may be buying my opinion, but they are not necessarily buying the opinion they want. After I review the facts, documents and issues involved, I will render my opinion, but no promises. I won’t take a case unless I generally agree that the theory of the side hiring me is plausible, but after all the facts are in and I’ve done my analysis, if the case of the client whose lawyer hired me is weak, I will say so.

Strangely, some lawyers seem to have a problem with this, even when the expert insisting on integrity is an ethics expert. I am currently in settlement mode with a law firm that hired me to render my opinion regarding the billing submitted by another firm to the law firm’s client. Part of their argument, in claiming malpractice against the billing firm, was that its billing was excessive, unreasonable and inflated, a violation of  Rule 1.5 of the Rules of Professional Conduct governing lawyers. I reviewed the billing statements, and they could have been inflated—some of the methods of stating who did what work was vague, and there sure was a lot of work billed on the matter, by an astounding number of lawyers—-but I could only assess that to a level of certainty sufficient to be certain in my own mind, much less state it under oath, if I could examine what all that work produced. This the law firm that hired me refused to produce, perhaps because the time it would have taken me to review it thoroughly would have been very expensive. But how could I decide whether the amount of money billed for a product was unreasonable without being able to determine what the product was? I couldn’t. Thus my written opinion stated what I could say honestly and with authority: based on the billing statements and the materials I was allowed to review,  I could only speculate on whether the billing was proper or not. It was possible. More than that, I could not say.

The law firm was not happy, although they never spoke to me about it. The firm just settled the case, and never paid me. (My very reasonable fee for services was $6,000, and if you’ve ever spent much time reviewing legal billing statements, you would know that they got off cheap.) You see, it didn’t really want an ethics expert, or an independent expert, or an honest, informed, professional analysis. They wanted a pre-determined opinion, bought with cash, delivered to specifications. Well, they won’t get that from me.

Welcome to the world of “expert witnesses.”


Ethics Dunce: The “Lady in Red”

Now that the John Edwards trial is over—it ended with an acquittal on one charge and deadlocked jurors on the rest—it’s time to heap some deserved contempt on the so-called “Lady in Red,” the alternate juror whose courtroom demeanor became such a distraction that it prompted the judge to send all the alternate jurors home. From the Washington Post:

“She walked in flipping her hair, smiling broadly at [Edwards], batting her long eyelashes, cocking her head playfully. She was just an alternate juror, but suddenly she was the most watched person in the cramped federal courtroom. Commentators had dubbed her the “Lady in Red” after she bopped into the courtroom last week in a revealing, off-the-shoulder red top. Others just called her the “flirty one,” interpreting her vivacity as some kind of courtship dance, though no one can say for sure whether that was her intent.” Continue reading

Unethical Quote of the Week, Trayvon Martin Ethics Train Wreck Division: Dr. Boyce Watkins

“Sybrina’s words have opened the door for millions of people to understand when George Zimmerman is let off the hook with either an acquittal or a plea bargain for a lesser charge.”

Syracuse University Professor Boyce Watkins, in a blog post complaining that the comments of Sybrina Fulton, Trayvon Martin’s mother stating that she thought the shooting of her son was “an accident” were devastating to the chances of convicting George Zimmerman of second degree murder.

Unmasked at last!

I must confess, I love this quote and the post that generated it. I love it because a race-baiting scholar who later defenders cannot credibly claim didn’t write what he meant, has confirmed what I have argued in multiple posts, in the course of also validating my assessment that Fulton’s comment was itself unethical, though not for the reasons Dr. Watkins objects to it.

In the rest of his post, Watkins confirms my assessment of Fulton’s irresponsible and despicable willingness to stir up hate toward Zimmerman. Continue reading

Clarifications, Retractions, Excuses and Lies: The Low Art of Pretending You Didn’t Mean What You Said

A figure in the public eye says something that appears sincere but that leads to negative conclusions about the speaker? Well. there are many options:

1. The speaker can stand by his or her words, and take the consequences.

2. The speaker can regret the words, express remorse, apologize, and ask forgiveness.

3. The speaker can accept the criticism and agree that he or she meant what he said, but state that, upon listening to the criticism, state that he or she no longer feels that way, and would not say the same thing today.

4. The speaker can try to say that the original statement wasn’t intended to mean what anyone hearing the words would naturally think they meant, making a plausible claim that the original statement was mis-worded.

5. The speaker can deny that he or she said the words, even, in some cases, though it was on tape.

6. The speaker can say that the words were taken “out of context,” as they sometimes are, as in Shirley Sherrod’s case, when subsequent comments at the same event changed the meaning of the quote, but were edited out.

7. The speaker can say he was joking, as Senator John Kerry tried to do after he suggested that if you don’t study hard and end up ignorant, you’ll be in the military fighting with all the other dummies, or as Professor Charles Ogletree has claimed regarding his statement that a video of President Obama hugging a radical law school professor when he was a student was hidden during the 2008 campaign.

8.The speaker can say that the statement is “no longer operative”, as Newt Gingrich did after a televised interview earlier this year. Continue reading

Trayvon Martin’s Mother Says That The Killing of Her Son Was An Accident. Well, That’s Certainly A Generous and Reasonable Thing For Her To—Wait, WHAT???

Great. Thanks for that statement, Sybrina. Now look what you've done to my head!

You think the Trayvon Martin-George Zimmerman Ethics Train Wreck is almost done? Ha! I would love for you to be right, but the signs are not promising:

  • Yesterday, the special prosecutor ended the suspense and announced that Zimmerman would be charged, putting a sock in the collective mouths of activists who claimed that the case was already closed. That was nice, but it also allowed Al Sharpton to claim that it was the demonstrations, the threats and the public outcry that forced that outcome. This is bad in three ways:

1.) It suggests that the U.S. justice system can be manipulated by mob rule;

2.) It tells the public that any citizen might be arrested, not because law enforcement believes it has a legitimate case, but because his rights have been balanced against other political and popular factors and found to be dispensable; and

3.) He may be right. Angela Corey, who made the decision to charge Zimmerman without a grand jury, strongly denied Sharpton’s point, and we should all hope she was being truthful.

  • But she almost certainly over-charged. Again, with a second degree murder charge, she is saying that there was no self-defense and that Zimmerman shot Trayvon out of spontaneous anger, animus or other cause that does not include any excuse or legally recognized mitigating factor. Here’s hope again: I hope she has sufficient evidence to support this. Otherwise, she has set everyone up for another round of mob fury and even violence, when Zimmerman is released by the judge who must rule on the “Stand Your Ground” law’s application to Zimmerman before trial, or when a jury finds that the evidence doesn’t support the charge beyond a reasonable doubt. Unethical: if Corey took this path  intentionally to take the city and state off the hook, guaranteeing that a judge would take the heat, and everyone could attack the judiciary for following the law, since that is the current fad. Unethical: if she overcharged to give the jury the unenviable job of freeing Zimmerman, since people are used to blaming Florida juries. (See: Anthony, Casey) Requiring less suspicion is the theory, advanced by some defense lawyers, that Corey is over-charging to put leverage on Zimmerman (he will be facing life imprisonment) and squeeze him to agree to a lesser charge, like manslaughter. Prosecutors are not supposed to charge citizens with crimes they know they can’t prove in trial; it is professional misconduct. I know, Jack McCoy used to do it all the time on Law and Order. So do too many prosecutors. It’s still unethical.
  • Zimmerman promptly turned himself in, which means that his blabber-mouth lawyers were even more unethical than I thought they were, suggesting that Zimmerman was on the run and out of state when, obviously, he wasn’t. George is well rid of these two.

If this wasn’t enough to prove that the Trayvon train wreck was still rolling, Sybrina Fulton, the dead teen’s mother, weighed in with this jaw-dropper: Continue reading

Justice? Michigan Prosecutors Say Davontae Sanford Can’t Get There From Here

Davontae Sanford is 18 and in prison. He was 14  when he confessed to shooting and killing four people in a drug house, but now Davontae says he confessed in order to please police.

Vincent Smothers is a professional hit man already convicted of eight murders. He now says that he killed the four victims Sanford took the rap for. There doesn’t appear to be any reason for Smothers to lie about it: the hit man  is not known for his compassion toward others. Smothers even waived his attorney-client privilege with former attorney Gabi Silver so  Silver could testify on Davontae Sanford’s behalf, and say under penalty of perjury that Smothers told her he was responsible for  the killings, and that Sanford didn’t help him.

Prosecutors, however, are trying to block Silver’s testimony, which could free a wrongly imprisoned teen, arguing that it would be hearsay. While Sanford’s attorney, Kim McGinnis, says she has done everything in her power to convince Smothers to testify himself, he refuses, leaving it up to her.

Continue reading