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The Element of Surprise Print E-mail
by John Browning    Mon, Feb 24, 2014, 11:57 am

          In many aspects of life, there’s something to be said for the element of surprise, whether it’s catching your spouse off guard with an unexpected gift for no reason, or simply changing up your usual dinner order at a favorite restaurant.  Sometimes, it pays to “zig” when others expect you to “zag,” and this is as true in the legal system as it is in other things.  Of course, as the following examples show, sometimes it doesn’t turn out as well as one would like.


You Picked the Wrong House to Rob


Jonique Ramon Webster is what some would call a career criminal, but that doesn’t mean the career has been going well.  In June 2013, only nine hours after his release from state prison on a ten-year stretch for home burglary, Webster was apprehended for another robbery.  After getting off the bus in Waco, Webster wandered around and eventually broke into a home, making off with a bicycle and a small amount of cash.  Unfortunately for him, the house he broke into belonged to Gabrielle Massey, a McLennan County prosecutor.  A neighbor called the police, and Webster was apprehended and later pleaded guilty.  With several prior convictions, he was sentenced to forty years in prison.


You Never Know Who’s Listening


          In October 2013, Orleans Parish (Louisiana) District Attorney Leon Cannizzaro went on a radio talk show program to talk about a recent high-profile defeat.  Cannizzaro’s office had prosecuted a police officer, Jamal Kendrick, for malfeasance after the officer’s dashcam video appeared to show Kendrick slapping a civilian six times while he lay handcuffed face-down on the pavement.  Cannizzaro was discussing the acquittal by criminal district court Judge Ben Willard with the talkshow co-hosts on WBOK-AM when a surprise listener called in—Judge Willard!  The judge launched into a lively defense of his ruling, and then dropped another surprise: he was standing at the radio station’s front door, and asked to be let in to the studio (the hosts declined).  Longtime listener, first time caller?


The Best Defense Is a Good Offense, Part I


          Last October, a BMW SUV being driven by a ninety year-old retired lawyer in Menlo Park, California inexplicably jumped the curb onto the sidewalk, pinning two, six year-old twin brothers against a wall. Both boys suffered serious injuries; one was in the hospital for five weeks.  Not surprisingly, a personal injury lawsuit was filed on their behalf.  But what was surprising was the response to the lawsuit filed by the ninety year-old defendant’s legal team, which claimed that the boys “carelessly, recklessly, and negligently conducted and maintained themselves” in a way that contributed to the accident, and that they had “voluntarily” “placed themselves in a position of danger.”  Right—because that’s what everybody casually strolling along a sidewalk should expect—a nonogenerian who can’t control his vehicle suddenly mistaking a sidewalk for the interstate.  Give me a break!


The Best Defense Is a Good Offense, Part II


          Aaron Strahan and Troy Tonalin are two Australian police officers who are facing charges of assault for repeatedly tasering Kevin Spratt back in August 2008.  According to the officers, Spratt was under the influence of alcohol and possibly drugs, and was resisting attempts to place him in custody and search him.  But during questioning by the judge about Mr. Spratt’s screaming in anguish during the incident, defense attorney Karen Vernon argued that most of the charges against her clients should be dismissed since Spratt could have been screaming in “joy or laughter.”  Seriously?  Don’t worry, the judge didn’t buy it either, and ordered the trial to continue.


The Best Defense Is a Good Offense, Part III


          Defense attorneys for two Fullerton, California police officers accused of using excessive force to subdue an unarmed homeless man in 2011 made a unique argument during the December 2013 trial.  Former police officers Manuel Ramos and Jay Cicinelli denied engaging in police brutality against thirty-seven year-old Kelly Thomas, maintaining that he had only “superficial bruising” when EMTs put him into an ambulance (Thomas died).  Defense attorneys for the officers advanced a novel theory—that Thomas died not as a result of being clubbed, punched, kicked, and tasered repeatedly for five minutes even after he fell silent, but because he “killed himself” by overexerting himself.


Who Says Prison Wardens Aren’t Sentimental?


          Finally, here’s a surprise courtesy of the Federal Bureau of Prisons.  Richie Farmer gained fame as a member of the University of Kentucky’s men’s basketball team in the early ’90s, helping the Wildcats persevere through NCAA sanctions and make it back to the NCAA tournament in 1992.  The school even retired his number 32 jersey, which hangs proudly in Rupp Arena in Lexington.  Farmer went on to even bigger things, serving as Kentucky Agriculture Commissioner.  But Farmer pleaded guilty to abusing his public office, and on March 18, is expected to report to federal prison to begin his twenty-seven month sentence.  Just in time for “March Madness,” however, the college hoops fans at the Federal Bureau of Prisons have announced that Farmer will be issued a familiar number on his inmate uniform—a number 16226-032.  It just looks a little different on an orange jumpsuit than on a basketball jersey—surprise!

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