Sometimes, it seems as though the cases that move through the criminal and the civil sides of the legal system run from the sublime to the ridiculous.As strange as a lawsuit or a criminal charge may sound, I can practically guarantee that there’s an even more bizarre one right around the corner.Here are some of the more recent examples of the oddest moments recently in the justice system:
I’ve seen a lot of verdicts described as “eyepopping.”But that description became a literal one for the jurors in an assault trial going on in a Philadelphia-area Court of Common Pleas in early February.The defendant, Matthew Brunelli, was on trial for his role in an August 2011 fight outside of the New Princeton Tavern; during the fight, Brunelli allegedly struck John Huttick, causing the loss of Huttick’s eye.While Huttick was testifying on the witness stand, his $3,000 prosthetic left eye popped out.He caught it, crying out as he did so, and as several jurors gasped and started to rise.Judge Robert Coleman, who called the moment an “unfortunate, unfortunate incident” declared a mistrial and dismissed the shaken jurors.
22 year-old Rebecca Gallanagh of Staffordshire, England may have gotten in trouble with the law, but that wasn’t going to keep her from getting her bling on.The young woman was convicted of being disorderly in public for her role in a fight outside a nightclub last November, and as part of her punishment, the court ordered her to wear an electronic monitoring bracelet and observe a strict curfew.But, Gallanagh thought, the court never suspended her fashion sense, so she “bedazzled” the ankle monitor by decorating it with fake diamonds.She says she got the idea from a reality show, “Big Fat Gypsy Weddings,” and that she did it “to make me feel better about wearing it. . . . It just matched my style.”But Gallanagh’s act of decorating defiance didn’t sit well with either the monitor’s manufacturer or the presiding judge, who slapped her with a $220 fine for her action (which the manufacturer said could hamper the electronic ankle bracelet’s effectiveness).
Better cast David Canterbury in the next “Star Wars” film.The 33 year-old Oregon man was arrested in 2011 after an incident in a Portland Toys R Us store, in which he allegedly assaulted 3 customers with toy “Star Wars” lightsabers.When police arrived, they saw Canterbury swinging two of the lightsabers.First, one officer tried to subdue the man with a Taser, but Canterbury must have learned from a Jedi master, because he used the lightsabers to sweep aside the device’s wires.Another officer similarly tried to use Taser, only to face the same result.Finally, officers rushed Canterbury and wrestled him to the ground.Evidently, the Jedi mind trick didn’t work either: Canterbury was taken into custody on charges of assault and resisting arrest.
The New Jersey Police and Firemen’s Retirement System (PFRS) paid out $175 million to 5,067 disabled retirees in 2011, much of which undoubtedly went to deserving former police officers and firefighters injured in the line of duty.But some of it went to Timothy Carroll, who retired at age 33 from his job as a sheriff’s officer in Morris County, New Jersey.Carroll claimed to suffer from depression and post-traumatic stress disorder, emotionally crippled by flashbacks of responding to crime scenes, suicides, and car accidents.On his disability application, Carroll described the “crime scene flashbacks and hallucinations” that haunted him.It was successful—he began receiving disability checks after his retirement was approved, effective May 1999.He currently gets $23,284 annually plus health coverage and his disability payouts could exceed $1 million.But, just a few years after the checks started rolling in, Carroll started a business, Tragic Solutions, LLC of Linden, New Jersey.What does this business do?Why, it cleans up gory crime scenes, specializing (according to its website) in taking care of “bloody and/or messy” scenes, including “murder, suicide, accidental, natural and decomposing deaths.”Yes, this is the same environment that so traumatized Carroll, and yes, there is something very wrong with New Jersey’s pension system.
Most attorneys take cash, check, or credit card payments for their legal fees.33 year-old Wynnewood, Oklahoma attorney Jeremy Oliver allegedly had a different payment plan in mind for one client.In February, he was arrested after allegedly offering to reduce a client’s legal fees in exchange for sexual favors from, and/or nude photos of, that client’s two teenage daughters (ages 13 and 18).
Manhattan lawyer Ted McCullough had an unusual reaction to assault allegations against him by his wife’s sister, Adrienne Mesko.Mesko claimed in family court that McCullough sexually assaulted her (according to police, there is still an active police investigation although no arrests have been made).McCullough’s response was to file a $7 million defamation suit against his sister-in-law, maintaining that she wanted to get pregnant and that he was simply doing her and her husband a favor by having sex with her.
School shootings are a serious subject, but zero tolerance policies have been taken to a ridiculous extreme.Case in point: 7 year-old Colorado second-grader Alex Evans, who was recently suspended for throwing an imaginary hand grenade on the playground during recess.School policies at Mary Blair Elementary School in Loveland, Colorado prohibit “play weapons,” but don’t say anything about imaginary ones in the mind of a little boy who was “pretending to be a hero saving the world.”If only the world could be saved from idiotic bureaucrats and school administrators who are so busy playing “thought police” that they can’t distinguish real threats from nonexistent ones.
My dear friends, though I’ve had some college courses and credit hours in the area of computer software, I never have received a diploma from an accredited college. But, as the heading of my piece states I’ve learned a lot in the School of Hard Knocks. I wrote this piece some 12 years ago but I honestly feel that in this downward economy for the last 5 years I’m compelled to re-release it. Particularly for those who are out of a job or will soon be graduating and be seeking employment in a harsh economic situation our country is facing with this anti business, anti oil drilling in our country and over taxing socialist group that is putting a burden on all hard American workers and business owners. Hopefully, my work and financial experience in my life can help some of you.
“James, I am sorry, but I am going to have to lay you off.” That was the bad news my supervisor had for me early one morning in January 1991. Though shocked by the news, my supervisor’s explanation as to why he was laying me off was more jolting. “James, you are a better word processor than the others in my department and you’ll probably fare better in obtaining a job. Besides, I have been told you have rental property and make extra money playing music.”
Lesson No. 1: Never reveal any outside business ventures you may have. Some bosses who are downsizing their workforces will try to be compassionate and keep employees who barely are making it, regardless of how good a worker you may be.
As other workers were given our separation papers from the aircraft company, several cried and lamented the loss of their well paying jobs we all enjoyed. “How will I pay for the new house I just bought?’ one asked. “How will I pay for my kids’ college tuition?” another sobbed. “My wife is pregnant! How will I adequately take care of my new born baby!” yet another wondered.
Lesson No. 2: Never spend more than you make. Tear up your credit cards, especially if you tend to overuse them. And more important, save enough money to cover your house, grocery and utility bills for at least three months or longer.
In all fairness, my soon to be former employer was extremely good to his soon-to-be ex-workers. We were given a two-year training certificate to any accredited college, and I eventually enrolled at a community college and took every available new software courses in word processing, my work trade. I was able to attend college because my wife was still employed and the TEC would pay me unemployment benefits as long as I attended school to improve my job skills. But, the ace up my sleeve was the three pieces of property that I owned, which help me pay for my house mortgage.
Lesson No. 3: Don’t assume that because you have a degree or a skillful trade you will easily find employment in your given profession or trade with the same pay. Many of my fellow workers took advantage of the two-year free school program and actually changed careers. Many did just as well or better than before.
After I finished my schooling, I took my time in looking for a new job. I searched for one that offered security, good benefits, decent pay, and hopefully a retirement investment program. After searching the job market, I targeted government-related jobs (city, county, state, and federal) and school districts. I also kept in touch with fellow co-workers for job leads and unashamedly told friends and fellow parishioners at my church that I was looking for work.
By sheer coincidence, I ran into a good friend who happened to be a TarrantCounty commissioner who used to hire me to entertain with my music group at his political gatherings. He invited me to his office to chat, and during our visit I told him I was searching for a job. Unaware that I was unemployed, Commissioner Johnson asked me if I had taken the county’s civil service test. I told him that I had and passed it with flying colors. “How fast can you type?” “Seventy words per minute,” I said, “Are you familiar with Word Perfect?” he continued. “I just finished a course in it at a local college,” I answered. “Good, you are just the type of office worker I am looking for.” I shook his hand and thanked him. At the age of 55, I embarked on a new career as a Bookkeeper II for Commissioner J. D Johnson’s Precinct 4.
Lesson No. 4: Though difficult to do at times, due to unforeseen circumstances take time in looking for a new job. Sometimes in haste, once can get into a dreadful job situation that you regret getting in to. Never be ashamed of letting others know you are out of work. Remember, even chief executives get the ax. No one is immune particularly in this dire economy our country is in today.
At the age of 61, I was asked by my county supervisor if I would like to learn to be a heavy equipment operator due that I never miss work, was always on time and never turned down working overtime. My supervisor told me, “James, I like your work ethics and you will definitely earn a better salary than working in the office.” I told him that I never drove anything bigger than my pickup. He responded, “James, I will send you to a heavy equipment operator school run by Texas A&M and I’m almost sure that in several months you should be able to operate heavy equipment.” After attending the heavy equipment operation school for 5 months I was awarded a Heavy Equipment Operator Certificate. Later, I passed my test for a commercial driver’s license that I still have.
As a trial lawyer who makes his living in the courtroom, I know and appreciate the sacrifice made by the people in the jury box.For a pittance (jury compensation in Texas was raised a few years ago from $6 to $50 per day, with the higher figure kicking in on the second day of service), every week, people answer the summons and show up at their local courthouse ready to do their civic duty.Once there, they patiently put up with civil or criminal lawyers asking them questions during jury selection and, if chosen, they can count on stints ranging from one day to months on end away from their jobs, their friends, and their families—all in the name of doing justice.
Jury duty is a sacrifice, one which some hesitate to make.The problem of “no shows” for jury duty has plagued many courts in Texas, to the point where a number of judges have had to resort to direct and sometimes drastic measures in order to combat the issue.In April 2010, 19 year-old Houston college freshman Kelsey Gloston not only failed to show up for jury duty in federal court; she actually was rude and hung up on the court clerk who called and offered to pick her up.That didn’t sit well with U.S. District Court Judge David Hittner.He ordered federal marshals to pick up Gloston and bring her to the courthouse in chains, so she could explain why he shouldn’t hold the pre-nursing student in contempt (ultimately, Gloston returned to be part of a 60-member panel of potential jurors in a health care fraud case).
Several Texas counties have begun adopting measures to address the problem of “no show” jurors.In 2005, El PasoCounty started a pilot project of summoning “scofflaw” jurors to court and imposing fines.In one year alone, the program netted the county $300,000 in revenue from fines.In 2012, frustrated by the fact that only one out of every five DallasCounty residents who were summoned to jury duty actually showed up, Dallas adopted a similar pilot program at the urging of Dallas Civil District Court Judge Martin Lowy.Dallas takes a somewhat kinder, more gentle approach: jury duty no-shows are summoned to appear two afternoons a week before an associate judge, where they are chided for their prior failure to appear and given a chance to reschedule their jury service.Anywhere from 60 to 80 such wayward souls are given a chance to redeem themselves in DallasCounty each week.Those summoned for a second chance like this but who fail to appear can be fined $1,000 or even arrested.
For many people working lower-paying jobs, jury duty represents a financial sacrifice.Although employers are barred under Texas law from firing an employee for serving on a jury, the prospect of time away from work and the wages lost as a result is daunting enough, especially in a still-fragile economy.But Texas lawmakers may soon pass legislation addressing these concerns.House Bill 433, authored by Republican State Representative Debbie Riddle of the Spring/Tomball area, would provide an incentive for businesses to pay their employees for jury service.The bill allows businesses to be compensated through a reduction in the state margins franchise tax.According to the proposed measure, an employer (or “taxable entity” in the legislation’s terms) would be entitled to a credit equal to 15 percent of the franchise tax due, so long as it pays at least one employee that worker’s regular salary or daily wage for each day or fraction of a day that the employee is absent from work “to attend jury selection or jury service.”The bill, if passed and signed into law, would take effect January 1, 2014.
The proposed law could make a big difference, both in terms of encouraging jury service and in the trickle-down economic effect on counties struggling to meet the demand for jurors.Look at HarrisCounty, for example.Last year, the county mailed out over 400,000 notifications for jury service in an effort to fill the needs of 82 courts for jurors.Harris County District Clerk Chris Daniel estimates that his office would save about $100,000 in taxes for every 5 percent increase in the jury pool.Fewer jury notices would need to be mailed, he says, and with more people appearing for jury service, residents would be called to service less often.In addition, without a disproportionate share of those least impacted by time away (such as retirees or the unemployed), jury service would feature a more representative cross-section of society.
Yes, jury service is the cornerstone of our system of justice, and measures like House Bill 433 represent a long-overdue recognition of that importance.The State Bar of Texas’s Jury Service Committee (on which I’m proud to serve) is also doing its part to remind Texans of their civic duty.The committee recently spearheaded the filming of a public service announcement featuring justices of the Supreme Court of Texas (Chief Justice Wallace Jefferson stars in the English language version, while the Spanish language version features Justice Eva Guzman).The PSAs, which spotlight how jury duty is vital to the administration of justice and integral to safeguarding constitutional rights, end with the tagline “Let’s do justice—for Texas.”They will air later this year on television and radio stations throughout the state.
Sure, jury duty is a responsibility, and some people try to either avoid it or rationalize that their other obligations somehow take precedence.But how much confidence can you have in a system of justice when you fail to take accountability for it?How much faith would you place in the protection of your rights when you abdicate any role in safeguarding everyone else’s rights?The next time that jury summons appears in your mailbox, answer the call of duty, and be a part of doing justice—for Texas.
In February 2013—African-American Heritage Month—it’s easy to grow complacent about the strides made by blacks in the legal profession.After all, the President of the United States is African-American and a former president of the Harvard Law Review.The U.S. Attorney General, Eric Holder, is African-American, as is Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas.But the trail that has culminated in seats of power and influence in Washington, D.C. began over 160 years ago with the first African-Americans to enter the American legal profession, overcoming incredible barriers that no white aspiring lawyer had to conquer.
In his groundbreaking 1999 book Emancipation: The Making of the Black Lawyer, 1844–1944, J. Clay Smith, Jr. (a former dean of the Howard University School of Law who served in both the Carter and Reagan administrations, and a biographer of Thurgood Marshall) sheds light on the earliest African-American attorneys.The first African-American to be admitted to the bar in the United States was Macon Bolling Allen of Portland, Maine.An article in the September 14, 1844 Portland American newspaper describes how Allen (who was born a free man in Indiana in 1816), initially applied for admission to the Maine bar but was “refused on the ground that the applicant was not a citizen of Maine” (at the time, under the U.S. Constitution, no black was considered a citizen of the United States).But Allen, a former schoolteacher who had studied the law under the tutelage of local abolitionist and attorney Gen. Samuel Fessenden, would not be turned away.He applied to be admitted by examination, and as the newspaper account states, “He was thereupon called before the examiners, a committee of the Cumberland bar, and sustained a satisfactory examination—the committee recommending him to the Court as a fit candidate—and accordingly he was admitted in the District Court to practice as an attorney and counsellor at law in the courts of this state.”
But being admitted to practice and making a living as an attorney are two different things.Allen found few whites willing to have a black lawyer, and Maine had a tiny African-American population whose legal needs couldn’t sustain him.So, he relocated to Boston, Massachusetts in 1845, and he would again have to seek admission by passing a bar examination.This time, however, his physical stamina was needed as much as his legal acumen: the site of the examination was 50 miles away in Worcester, Massachusetts, and Allen couldn’t afford transportation.He walked the entire distance, and though physically exhausted, passed the exam, becoming the first African-American attorney in Massachusetts.Allen would also become, just 3 years later, the first black to hold judicial office in the United States when he became justice of the peace for Middlesex County, Massachusetts.
After the Civil War, Allen moved to Charleston, South Carolina.There, in 1873, he briefly held one judgeship before being elected a probate court judge in 1874.After Reconstruction, he moved to Washington, D.C. where he became an attorney for the Land and Improvement Association.Allen died in 1894 at the age of 77, but his legacy lives on in one particularly meaningful way: a Boston civil rights law clinic bears his name.
Allen’s rough road to bar admission was traveled by other early African-American lawyers.At the age of 15, Robert Morris was hired as a house servant by a wealthy white Boston lawyer.Impressed with Morris’ aptitude, the lawyer encouraged his employee to “read the law” and pursue a legal career.In 1847, Robert Morris became the second black lawyer in the United States.He would go on to file the first civil rights lawsuit challenging segregation in public schools, in the 1848 case of Roberts v. Boston.In 1850, the Supreme Judicial Court of Massachusetts ruled against Morris and his client in a decision that would later be cited by the U.S. Supreme Court in the 1896 case of Plessy v. Ferguson, in which the highest court in the land upheld segregation under the doctrine of “separate but equal” (a doctrine that stood until the landmark 1954 case of Brown v. Board of Education).
In 1857, Edward Garrison Draper became the first African-American admitted to practice law in Maryland.It wasn’t easy—Maryland law at the time limited admission to the bar to “free white citizens,” leaving Draper ineligible with two strikes against him—he was black and therefore not considered a citizen.But Draper was undaunted, and he convinced the authorities to admit him to practice by stating that he didn’t plan to practice law in Maryland, but instead needed to be admitted as a lawyer so that he could practice in Liberia, where he intended to emigrate.Texas wouldn’t have an African-American attorney until 1877, when A.W. Wilder was admitted to practice.
These earliest African-American lawyers became members of the bar the way most white lawyers did at the time, by “reading the law” under the guidance of an older attorney and then passing an examination (usually oral) by members of the local bar.John Mercer Langston was no exception.Born free in 1829 in Virginia to a former slave, Lucy Langston, and the white plantation owner, Ralph Quarles, who freed her and then fathered 3 sons with her over the course of a 25 year relationship, Langston was raised in Ohio after both his parents died.After earning bachelor’s and master’s degrees from Oberlin College, Langston applied for admission to law schools in New York and Ohio but was denied because of his race.So, he “read the law” under the guidance of an attorney and U.S. congressman, Philemon Bliss, and was admitted to the Ohio bar in 1854.
Langston became active in the abolitionist movement, and helped runaway slaves escape to freedom through Ohio’s segment of the Underground Railroad.After the Civil War, he served as president of the National Equal Rights League and in 1868 became dean of Howard University’s law school—the first black law school in the United States.In 1870, he assisted in the drafting of what would eventually become the Civil Rights Act of 1875, signed into law by President Ulysses S. Grant on March 1, 1875.He later became, during a period of increasing disenfranchisement for blacks in the Jim Crow South, the first African- American to be elected to Congress from Virginia (and one of only 5 blacks in Congress during that turbulent period).
These early African-American attorneys overcame incredible obstacles in their quest to join this profession.They gained their legal knowledge through countless hours of self-study at a time when law schools would not admit them, vowed to uphold a Constitution under which they weren’t even considered citizens, and plied their trade in courtrooms where blacks could not even serve on juries.Lawyers like Macon Bolling Allen, Robert Morris, and John Mercer Langston blazed a trail that legal giants like Thurgood Marshall would later follow, and their legacy deserves to be remembered and honored.
(For more information on early African-American legal pioneers, I recommend the work of the Just the Beginning Foundation, a multiracial nonprofit organization whose goal is to increase racial diversity in the legal profession and on the bench; its website is www.jtbf.org).
Last week, we looked at some of the odder laws and lawsuits in courts around the globe.This week, however, we return home for a survey of some of the lighter moments in our legal system.The following examples illustrate that no one appreciates legal strangeness quite like we do here in the good ol’ U.S. of A.
Remember those fake nose, glasses, and moustache disguises you could get as a kid?Will, believe it or not, your right to wear a disguise is protected by law.Recently, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit tackled the issue of whether having a witness testify while incognito violates a criminal defendant’s right under the 6th Amendment to confront the witnesses against him.The case involved a confidential informant testifying in a public courtroom against an alleged member of a powerful Mexican drug cartel accused of weapons smuggling.While the witness understandably wanted to remain in disguise, defense lawyers argued that the jury might prejudge their client if a prosecution witness showed up in court with a fake moustache and wig.The appellate court came down in favor of false moustaches.
32 year-old Brandon “Mickey Vegas” Gadson vehemently denied charges of flying 3 women to Alaska and advertising them as prostitutes in 2010 during a recent sex-trafficking trial.But then, the mounting evidence to the contrary began to undermine Gadson’s statements that he wasn’t a pimp.First, there was the little matter of being caught in an undercover prostitution sting with 3 women and $10,000 in cash.Then, there was the annoying fact that Gadson had posted ads on Craigslist.org and Backpage.com offering the women as “available for commercial sex acts.”Finally, it’s really hard to maintain credibility when denying you’re a pimp when you have the word “Pimp” tattooed on your neck, as Gadson does.Not surprisingly, Gadson will be spending the next year and a half behind bars.
50 year-old Donna Lange of Everett, Washington stands accused of murdering her boyfriend.The act of murder isn’t itself all that unusual, but her alleged choice of weapon is.Witnesses claim that Lange smothered her lover to death with her breasts.Police have recommended charges of second-degree manslaughter (maybe they should throw in motorboating without a license, for good measure).This isn’t an isolated incident, either; in November 2012, a German woman was accused of trying to murder her boyfriend with her 38DDs.For some criminal defendants, I suppose, their cups runneth over.
26 year-old Jared Gurman of Long Island is accused of the attempted second-degree murder of his girlfriend Jessica Gelderman.Gurman allegedly shot her in the back with a .22 caliber assault rifle.The couple had apparently had a heated argument over whether a “zombie apocalypse” could happen in real life, with Gelderman disagreeing with Gurman’s position that it could.Sounds like someone’s taking those episodes of “The Walking Dead” too seriously.
58 year-old Minnesota lawyer Thomas Lowe was just disbarred.What caused the Minnesota Supreme Court to revoke his law license?According to the order disbarring Lowe, he had admittedly had an affair with a client he was representing in a divorce case.As bad as that may be, it gets worse: Lowe actually billed her for the time they spent having sex!Some critics of the legal profession would say that’s like getting charged twice for the same service.
There have been several instances around the country of pregnant women trying to beat traffic tickets for using the HOV or carpool lane by explaining that there were indeed two people in the car.But 56 year-old Jonathan Frieman of San Rafael, California recently got very creative in trying the same argument.After being pulled over by a California Highway Patrol officer for an apparent vehicle-occupancy violation, Frieman showed the patrol officer incorporation papers as his passenger, saying that, legally, a corporation occupied his car and should be counted as a passenger since under the law a corporation is considered a “person.”Yet, despite Frieman’s lawyer arguing that highway signs requiring “2 or more persons” are unconstitutionally vague, traffic court judge Frank Drago would have none of it. “Common sense says carrying a sheaf of paper in the front seat does not relieve traffic congestion.”Frieman was found guilty.Common sense – 1, creative excuses – 0.
The White House’s “We the People . . .” website allows citizens to petition the administration for just about anything; of course, to get an official White House response, a petition has to garner at least 25,000 signatures.Earlier this year, a petition for Texas to secede from the Union got a lot of media attention.But what about some of the lesser-known petitions?One such petition asks the Obama administration to secure funding for and begin construction on a Death Star (yes, just like in “Star Wars”) by 2016.That petition was signed by 1,428 people who left their parents’ basements long enough to sign it.Another petition, with 2,972 people signing on, calls for the government to “dissolve the current legal system and replace it with a single Hall of Justice, run by Judges; motorcycle-riding law officers who act as police, judge, jury, and executioner.”That’s right: there are 2,972 people out there who would like to replace the rule of law with something straight out of the abysmally bad Sylvester Stallone movie “Judge Dredd.”I fear for the future of this great nation.
We’ve all heard the phrase “there’s an app for that.”Well, if your marriage is on the rocks, now divorce advice is no farther away than your iPad.The app “iSplitlite,” is an iPad based tool that “helps divorcing couples split up their marital assets/debts” and assists in making “visual decisions about ‘who gets what’ more quickly, with less adversity and acrimony.”Wow—an app to assist in the dissolution of a marriage.For those of you who feel we’ve let technology run amok, consider this: you still have to fight over who gets the iPad itself.