Read Kate Pruchnicki’s article “Your Honor…I Cannot and Will Not Proceed”, the story of Attorney K. Ronald Bailey, a criminal defense attorney from Sandusky, Ohio, who spent thirty days in the county jail after being held in contempt of court by Judge Roger Binette.
- Write a list of the points you want to make.
- Put it aside, revisit it, look for connections
- Prepare by Outline
- You are going to know it- you are not going to read it
- Think about and then write out the phrases where you most want to use the beauty of language
- Be eloquent, soar- but don’t overheat it
- The baseline is simple, clear, unambiguous language
- Use your “Beautiful Phrasing” sparingly- but use it
- Bring your audience from the foundation of understanding up into the sky with you
- Use the rule of 3’s
- The most important of which is (read it to the end, it is a little different)
- Tell them what you are gong to say
- Tell them
- TELL THEM WHY IT IS IMPORTANT
- The most important of which is (read it to the end, it is a little different)
- Make sure you prepare an ending that they will remember to get yourself off stage
- Then-Put the draft aside, come back to it
- Look for new connections and ideas
- Remember that good editing most often means cutting out the dead wood
- Then- when you stand up
- Slow Down and Breathe before you say your first word
- Remember understanding happens most often in the pause.
- Take a silent moment to let the point sink in
- If nothing else, they will remember your energy and passion- Let it Go
The Holy Love Ministry sits in a cornfield west of Cleveland. It is built upon the relationship between an otherwise ordinary woman and Mary, The Mother of God. Followers believe Mary visits on occasion and often sends signs, much like She does at Fatima or Lourdes. Pilgrims come from all over the world to witness and pray.
The Ministry is not poor. Donors have financed a beautiful Chapel and other buildings on the grounds. In fact, donors from Mexico City have been so generous that the Cardinal of Mexico City called on the Vatican to apply some muscle and shut Holy Love down. Rome called Cleveland. Cleveland paid a visit to Holy Love. (I’ll write about that later, but it is not a coincidence that the country that produced the Vatican also produced the Mafia.)
Holy Love put its building fund into a credit union. A thief (The CEO of the Credit Union), looted hundreds of millions of dollars, including over $1,000,000 in Holy Love money. When Holy Love found out about the theft, and before the Government took over the looted credit union, Holy Love went to withdraw their money. That was their right. In fact, the Government was assisting some people in withdrawing money and structuring accounts. That way, when the Credit Union was shut down, they would not lose their money.
That did not happen to Holy Love. The Government lied to Holy Love. They told them that they had to wait until over the weekend to get their money. There was a rumor that Holy Love was under investigation. No one ever said what the investigation was about. Just a rumor- nothing ever came of it. But over the weekend the Government shut down the Credit Union and locked up all of the money that was left.
And Holy Love was out more than $1,000,000.
I had represented them in their fight with the Vatican and the Diocese, so they came to me for help.
Easy case. It was their money. They went to take it out, but the Government did not let them. The Government lied to them to stop them from receiving their own money. The Government did so because of a baseless rumor. The Government had no right to the money. Surely The Government would come to its senses and give the money back.
The Government did not come to its senses. The Government refused to give the money back. Suit was filed. The Government fought the lawsuit.
And they did so by using a uniquely American defense.
THE MISREPRESENTATION EXCEPTION
You see, you can only sue The Government if The Government allows you to. That is called Sovereign Immunity. There is more. You are not allowed to sue The Government if The Government lied to you. That is called THE MISREPRESENTATION EXCEPTION. The Government’s defense was; “Yes, we took the money-we shouldn’t have taken it-it wasn’t ours to take- and we won’t give it back. But, we lied about it so you can’t sue us.” Honest to God, that is what they said. And they won.
The case is on appeal, we’ll see, but one thing is for sure.
The game is rigged.
The following is an excerpt from an opinion piece published at cleveland.com on on January 31, 2016.
The “truthful plea agreements” editorial published on cleveland.com Jan. 11 highlighted a real problem in criminal justice.
How do you handle a case when both sides fear that they will lose? What if a defendant maintains his innocence, but faces a trial that may cost him his freedom — for life? What if a prosecutor has a credible accusation — but not enough evidence?
Over the years, judges and lawyers have invented a way to cope. They invented a fiction.
— And the Beast Spit Him Out*
“I have committed a terrible crime.
I have paid a terrible price.”
John Snider, 71 years old, made that statement.
He stood, wearing an orange jumpsuit, before Judge Dick Ambrose. He hunched over a podium and leaned on his cane. He had been led out, in shackles, from the invisible door that hides in all Cuyahoga County Courtrooms. It is part of a wood paneled wall that separates the absurdity of the courtroom from the insanity of jail. Pass through and you enter the belly of the beast- nothing but cinderblock and stainless steel and unbreakable glass doors. A black shirted deputy sheriff stood behind him. He was close enough to reach out, if need be. It was more likely John Snider would fall than run. He stood ready to be sentenced, for the third time.
John Snider pled guilty to distributing child pornography. Making money by assaulting children is unspeakable. Even trading the pictures with others is reprehensible. But John Snider did none of that. John Snider had never acted out in any way.
He looked at pictures on his computer. He got them from a sharing program, like LimeWire used to be. The sharing program allows others to look at your files. John Snider did not know he was sharing. In fact, no one but the police ever looked at his pictures. Police can send out a “ping” connected to the program and find a person who had downloaded pictures. The person does not ever have to leave his house, or buy a dirty book, or talk to anyone (even online). They just have to look at pictures.
(You have to be wondering why the sharing program, a multinational platform for passing smut, was not been indicted along with John. Me too.)
Based upon the ping, the police raided John Snider’s home. He was charged with distributing child pornography. “Distributing” – even though he only looked at the pictures.
Distribution, and the long prison terms it brings, should be reserved for people who sell videos or who run websites. It should fit those who actively share the filth. It was never meant for people who just looked at the pictures.
Court psychiatrists and private mental health professionals examined John Snider. No one believed he had any sexual interest in children. He was an obsessive/ compulsive collector of anything that caught his interest. He had seen a news report, downloaded a small number of pictures and that was it. He did it, the Doctor said, as result of depression.
He had once been a valued executive, a senior insurance adjustor, until a back injury shortened his career and fed his depression. He was a family man, loved by his wife and children. He had never acted out in any way and had never been in trouble.
His case was assigned to Judge Kathleen Sutula. That assignment is done in a public proceeding known as an arraignment. Other defendants and their lawyers are there. A gallows’ humor groan inevitably rises from the lawyers each time Judge Sutula’s name is called. She is considered, among other things, harsh.
I whispered to John Snider as we walked from the bench, “It will be OK”, more out of hope than optimism.
John Snider pled guilty, because he was guilty of possessing the pictures. He could be sentenced to probation, or prison time. No jail to years in the belly of the beast.
And here is the problem. You would think that similar people with similar crimes would get similar sentences. That is not the way it is. Sentences vary wildly depending upon the Judge.
At the sentencing, John Snider’s whole family was there: his wife, daughters and a son in law. Everyone knew the Judge had a reputation. We feared the hearing might be brutal.
Judge Sutula has added flowers and a nightstand light to her bench, presumably to soften the ambiance. The homey touch did not soften the dread of standing before her.
She had, once, given probation to a defendant in a case just like this. There must have been special circumstances, but she had done it before. The family believed (we all hoped) that John Snider: who had never been in any trouble, who was 69, and who no one thought was a danger, would avoid jail.
He did not. The Judge began a pointed lecture. The facts weren’t quite right and it seemed very personal. It ended with her sentencing him to 2 years on the 3 crimes. Hard, I thought as I sat there, but not outrageous. Then, in a tone I thought sounded more pointedly personal, she said that sentences would run consecutively. That means stacked one on the other. John Snider, at 69, would go to prison for 6 years.
With a broken back and a bad heart he was more likely than not to die in jail.
The deputies moved John Snider, quickly and silently, through the secret door. He did not have an opportunity to look back to his family. And in that instant, he was gone.
There was nothing in the Judge’s presentation that would have signaled consecutive sentences. Consecutive, one on top of another, is reserved for the worst criminals.
We appealed. It took a year. John Snider was in prison. The Appellate Court agreed with us. The sentence did not follow the law. The case was sent back for another sentencing. But the sentencing would be back in front of Judge Sutula again.
Just before the second sentencing I learned that a family member, the son-in-law, bragged that he had spoken to the Judge by phone before the first sentencing. He claimed he had given her an earful of what a terrible person John was. He had no evidence, but apparently harbored some grudge or insecurity. His father was a policeman, a boss in a suburb. The son in law was a policeman wannabe. He was flexing his muscles here. He could talk to the Judge privately- wield his policeman’s power in secret. And he was a coward. He had been at the sentencing, pretending to support the family.
A Judge cannot talk to anyone but the lawyers about the case and then only if both lawyers are present. It is clear in the rules. If she does talk to anyone alone, she has to let the lawyers know. Either side has a right to deal with the consequences. It is called an ex-parte communication. Judge Sutula never let anyone know she had spoken to the son-in-law.
We believed she should be removed from the case. The procedure is to file an affidavit of disqualification to the Supreme Court. The Chief Justice decides the outcome.
We had information from the family members about what the son-in-law did. But, at this point, we had nothing from him.
We let the Judge know what we had learned. We asked her to remove herself. This time she was just plain angry. “In all of my years on the bench”, she said, “It has always been my policy to not talk to anyone”. She did not affirm or deny. She did not say anything meaningful. We filed what we had with the Supreme Court and laid out what we knew.
We do not know what communication took place between the Judge and The Supreme Court. Though we had to provide copies of our request to both the Judge and the Prosecutor, the Judge provided nothing to us.
Very quickly we received an order from the Court. The Judge had stated that she was not influenced. She said she did not recall a phone call. The Chief Justice wrote that it was only hearsay from the family, not the son-in-law himself. Request denied.
I do not claim what follows was intentional, or that the insult exists anywhere other than in my head. In the written order of the Supreme Court each time they referred to the Judge, it was “Judge Sutula”. And each time they referred to me, it was “Milano.” “Milano claims…”- “Judge Sutula avers…”.
The sentencing was reset before Judge Sutula once again. Now we would face the scenario about which many of my colleagues had warned me. “You will only piss her off.”
We needed to attempt, again, to talk to the son-in-law. There was great concern over the family problems he had caused and now would cause. Nevertheless, we contacted him and he talked. Better said – he vomited out everything about his phone call with the Judge. None of what he had told her was true. He seemed to believe he was safe. He could say anything. John Snider was in jail.
We redid the motion for the Supreme Court with his affidavit attached and sent it in. The case was set for sentencing. Family, counselor and friends again appeared at the Courthouse ready for the worst.
Judge Sutula brought us into the Courtroom. This time she knew that there was evidence of the ex-parte discussion. She was about to sentence again, but decided that it might be better if she waited. To barrel ahead would look like she was out to get John Snider. Sentencing was postponed until the Supreme Court made another decision.
Then, without warning, we got a phone call telling us that the case had be re-assigned to Judge Dick Ambrose. Judge Sutula had voluntarily removed herself from the case. Shortly thereafter, we got an order from the Supreme Court telling us, in effect, that since the Judge had removed herself, they would go no further to investigate the Judge/son-in-law conversation.
And then came the third sentencing.
“Please Judge,” John Snider whispered as if he were ashamed and afraid his family would hear, “I cannot bear to wake up scared every morning. Scared that I will be stabbed. Scared that I will be beaten. Scared that I will be extorted. I have been in jail for 16 months. My wife and I have lost our home. She has been gravely ill, and I am sure the stress I caused her has worsened her illness.”
Judge Ambrose reduced the sentence from 6 years to time served, about a year and a half. That was punishment enough. He then ordered John Snider to be released to his family-under the strict supervision of county sheriff and the sex offender unit of the probation department.
John stood a moment, leaning on his cane, looking confused. Believing he was being released, he moved towards his wife. The deputy moved quickly. “Come with me,” back through the invisible door, back to jail. There was paperwork to do. You can’t leave jail until get the paperwork gets done.
John Snider had no street clothes. About 7 that evening the deputies gave him a jacket and some shoes to go with his jail orange coveralls.
And with that… the beast spit him out.
PS: There is an inscription above the Bench in the Court of Appeals. It says, “This is a government of law, not of men.” Do you believe that is true?
PPS: Judge Ambrose is Dick “Bam Bam” Ambrose of Cleveland Browns glory days. Lawyers suck up to Judges. Browns fans are hero worshipers. That is a lot of obsequiousness for one lawyer to bear.
* In the Belly of the Beast is a book by Norman Mailer and Jack Abbott. It detailed Mr. Abbott’s time in prison.
Lawyers are- In Trial… On Trial… Trying a Case… Going to Trial, Preparing for Trial, In the Middle of a Trial, Just Coming Off a Trial– or working very hard to assure that their clients never undergo such a painful experience.
Trial is, in the mind of the populace, what lawyers do. But most lawyers will never enter a courtroom.
What all lawyers must do, regardless of their specialty, is protect their clients from the danger of trial, while laying the groundwork for success should that endgame become necessary. Our common principles; integrity, the professional effort, applying law to fact, mean just as much to the transactional lawyer as they do to the litigator.
Cases are disputes that end up in a lawyer’s office. Usually they arise from conduct never touched by lawyers. Sometimes they arise despite the best efforts of a lawyer to avoid the conflict. No lawyer wants his/her client to end up with a case.
Trial is the end game of all cases. It is the application of evidence to law. It is the crucible where evidence and law and skill and personality are mixed and burnt down to yield a verdict- a judgment.
This article is not intended to be treatise on how to conduct a trial. It is written, rather, with the hope it will provide a framework on how to approach the task.
You are not a shark, or a tiger, or a wolverine.
You are a teacher-at every turn.
It is your job to make people understand. You need to insure that your client understands why his case is different than his story, his chances of success and what the world of trials will be like for him.
It is your job to teach the judge, at your first opportunity and at every opportunity that you are right about your case. He or she will make decisions based upon conclusions drawn, whether realized or not. Right from the first contact with the Judge or the staff attorney, you need to load in the quality of your case and your competence as Counsel.
It is your job to teach your opponent. Don’t be overly concerned about a strategy of secrecy. Convince your opponent that they will lose and you will win the case – more likely on the safer ground of mediation or a settlement conference.
And then you need to teach the jury.
It is a case, not a story
There are books written about the use of story telling in trial. It is, after all, the way we communicate and pass on history. It is an important tool, but it is death if you overly rely on it as a trial tactic. ‘My story against yours,’ allows for too many extraneous factors; like emotion and prejudice and inherent power, to taint the result. Contrary to popular myth, all but lawyers with the most powerful clients want intelligent juries. They want juries willing to do hard examination of fact and law, self examining of their prejudices, and then make the difficult decisions necessary to render just verdicts.
Clients come in and tell their story. They ask you, “Do I have a case?” The lawyer’s question should be, “Can we win at trial?” expanded to, “What will the admissible evidence be?” and to “What is the law that applies?”
That method of analysis is issue based, rather than story based. It needs to be done as a threshold in every case.
In every case, do an issue-based analysis.
Do a complete exploration of your client’s version, exhausting every possible fact or explanation or witness. Your questions are, What else? Who else?, until there are no more answers left. Ask each client, and each potential witness: “What will the other players in the case say good about you- say bad about you- tell me about the situation?”
You also need to prepare a timeline-immediately. People are not that smart and it is difficult to follow a complex presentation. However, they do respond to a framework. The chronological framework gives them a tool to organize their thinking.
(Remember, sadly, that the most common motivation left in America is self-interest. As a result we have trained ourselves to believe that it is OK to lie to forward our interests. And beware of a new and viral strain of this virus, the person who will make up any lie to fit a nugget of fact. They have no compunction to lie on such an outrageous level that they achieve Orwellian credibility because no one believes that they could make that stuff up.)
The next thing you need to do is understand the law of the case. That is easier than you would think. Trial is the end game. The jury finds the facts based upon the presentation of evidence and applies them to the law. They are the ones you have to convince. Where do they get their law? They get in through the jury instructions. A plain English recitation of all of the elements of the trial, from what the cause of action is to what rules the jury uses to reach a verdict.
Read the general jury instruction on such issues as credibility and burden of proof until you can recite them by rote. Read the case-specific jury instructions at the onset of each case and read them again until you thoroughly understand what you have to prove.
Determine what may or may not be admissible, and then apply that evidence to the law.
Make a determination about whether you can win at trial. Repeat the process on a regular bases as the case progresses over time. Cases are fluid and often do not end up where they began.
Integrity Wins Cases
Cases are settled favorably (or won at trial) because you have shown the Judge and the opposition (and the Jury) that your case is real. You should win. They will only believe you, however, if you present yourself and your case with integrity.
Integrity, in this context, means that you will stake out the furthest reasonable position for your client. You will make the professional effort to be fully prepared on each issue. If you say it, regarding law or fact, you say it because you believe it to be true.
People watch and listen. A lawyer might get away with a stretch here or an outright falsehood there (lawyers do lie). But over time, people will watch what you do. You will either build a reputation for integrity or not. In my opinion, you will win more cases based upon a well-earned reputation for credibility and reasonableness than you will on good facts.
How do I prepare?
One way to look at a human being’s level of intelligence is to consider on how many levels of abstraction they can think ahead. Chess players think 64 moves or levels ahead. Composer writes symphonies blending levels of instruments and rhythms and tones. Most of us cannot think past lunch.
Young lawyers watch old lawyers operate smoothly in any situation and wonder how. Experience is an equal to intelligence as it allows you a higher point to jump off. You have seen the first 15 steps before, so it is easier to see the next.
So how does a lawyer overcome a lack of intelligence or experience? Through layered preparation. Do the analysis, set it aside and do it again. Do it with others. Each time you do it you will see more, understand more and your arguments and presentations will be more complete.
Has this ever worked in the real world?
I tried a murder case, by myself in Akron.
The allegation was that a young man murdered his girlfriend’s 2-year-old child by punching him in the stomach. The case was based upon expert testimony regarding the timing of the blow. If it was delivered the night before the baby died, the client was guilty.
I contacted James Patrick MD, the elected coroner from Toledo. He is a large, charismatic fellow, from Harvard Undergrad and Yale Med School (or Vice Versa).
We met 7 or 8 times as he taught me the science of immune cells and how they could be used to time insults to the body. He was convinced that the baby was injured days before. The client was not guilty.
My theory on direct examination, especially with experts is that it is a dance. The lawyer only leads imperceptibly, while the expert teaches the jury.
So we went to trial and it was a big deal. Packed courtroom. The elected County Coroner of Summit County testified for the state. Our current Chief Justice, then the elected prosecutor, presented for the state.
Dr. Patrick took the stand and I attempted to teach through him by gently leading through his presentation. Except to each of my questions he answered only yes or no. I tried to dance. He stood firm and I began to sweat. In desperation I said, “Dr., what do you want to tell the jury.” He got up, set up his presentation equipment and taught the jury, uninterrupted by anyone for more than an hour, exactly how and why the baby died. The client was acquitted on the first ballot and I had nothing to do with it.
But I did learn that while people might root for a fighter, they will listen to and believe a teacher.
Jay Milano ﬁrst spoke in court during a murder trial and has practiced at that level of intensity for over 30 years. His clients include Snoop Dogg, Hell’s Angels, sports ﬁgures, doctors, judges, lawyers, and executives, as well as countless people who just needed help. He has tried to not-guilty verdicts cases involving death penalty, multiple homicides, and the “shaken baby” syndrome. He is nationally known as a defender of those falsely accused of sexual assault on children.
Mr. Milano led the exposure of sexual assaults and the cover-up by the Catholic Church and was featured on the Emmy-winning 60 Minutes report, “The Church on Trial.”
As his practice progressed, Mr. Milano became more focused on complex litigation, white-collar crime, and cases where law and science intersect. His method: fearless, aggressive and personal lawyering remains constant – regardless of whether a trial is called civil or criminal. His practice now includes signiﬁcant malpractice, injury and defamation cases, many with Judgments exceeding $1 million.
He regularly represents professionals; doctors, dentists, nurses, lawyers or judges on issues of professional conduct.
He has taught Trial Tactics at Cases Western Reserve School of Law for 20 years and teaches advanced tactics to practicing attorneys several times a year.
“No person shall operate any vehicle… under the influence of alcohol, a drug of abuse, or a combination of them.”
Whether you call it OVI, DUI or just drunk driving, those words from the Ohio Revised Code put fear into the hearts of thousands of drivers throughout the State of Ohio who are accused of drunk driving every year. With mandatory jail sentences and fines that can be attached to drivers who previously had spotless records, drunk driving arrests have become a major issue throughout the state. It’s not just for driver’s who are completely intoxicated either. Just a few drinks can push you past the 0.08 blood alcohol limit in Ohio and before you know it an evening with friends can end up as a weekend in jail.
Throughout Cleveland and the surrounding communities police use a variety of methods to track down drunk drivers and then use several tests on the driver to determine if they are impaired. The primary method that officers use when they first pull someone over is the traditional slate of field sobriety tests. These tests measure a person’s coordination, balance and dexterity in an attempt to determine if the person is impaired.
Officers also use breathalyzer’s in the field and after arrests are made to determine how much someone has been drinking. Drivers in Ohio can refuse these tests, however, a refusal will automatically result in a license suspension by the Ohio Bureau of Motor Vehicles.
The results from the field sobriety tests and the breathalyzer can all be challenged, however, and that’s why it is so important for defendants in OVI cases to seek out an attorney. Specifically, the results from breathalyzers need to be reviewed to determine if they are accurate and if proper guidelines were followed when the test was administered. The breathalyzers commonly used in Ohio have come under a massive wave of scrutiny over the last year and it is important to know how to use that scrutiny in each case.
With potential penalties that can include multiple months in jail and thousands of dollars in fines, defendants have to seek out every possible way to challenge the allegations against them. If you or anyone you know has been charged with a driving under the influence call us and let’s figure out what we can do to help.
Dear Friends and Colleagues,
This is an important election coming for Cleveland and Cuyahoga County. We will be conducting a contested election for a new county prosecutor for the first time in our lifetimes. Given all that we have seen in the past two years, unfathomable corruption, and a justice system so inbred that it has mutated beyond recognition, we need to pay very close attention. So, given that I have spent my whole life in that system, please allow me to impose upon you my opinion of who is best qualified to be our next prosecutor.
In my opinion,
In order to understand how justice works in our county, you need to understand our history.
Our entire county, not just the courts, was dominated from the 1950's until the 1980's by John T. Corrigan. He was not always right, and his office got out of control as he got older, but he was a good man.
Ironically, he and my father fought cases with mutual respect for years and ended up in the Sandusky Veteran's home together, both enduring Alzheimer's, neither able to recognize the other.
During that time judges routinely came from the prosecutor's office. It was a strategy. If any judge fell into disfavor, an assistant was there to contest the election. We also began the bizarre custom of electing Judges by last name (usually Irish, not that there is anything wrong with that) rather than an examination of their qualifications. John T loomed over it all.
Stephanie Tubbs Jones followed John T and the Justice Center lived in the Pax Stephanie. It was a time of reasoned and reasonable conflict.
Draw your own conclusions about Mr. Mason and what has happened to the County in recent years. But, in my opinion, we should all be ashamed of the job we let him do. It was almost like a Saturday Night Live Skit, with county cronies carrying out the furniture while the elected county prosecutor gave press conferences talking about how tough he was on crime.
What is most true to me about Cuyahoga County Criminal Justice is that it has evolved so far into its own world, it has become so ingrown, that it is a system in need of complete overhaul. We need a thoughtful approach to problem solving unencumbered by the past.
Now we have five Democrat candidates. Whoever wins the upcoming primary will no doubt be the next prosecutor. This is Cuyahoga County and the chance of a Republican taking this position is so slim that none have yet filed.
So, in my opinion-
Subodh Chandra is the most thoughtful, and the best prepared of these candidates. He is well educated (Stanford, Yale Law), a former Law Director of the City of Cleveland, and a former assistant US attorney. His experience matches or exceeds all of the others. He is also a Justice Center outsider. Most important to me about his experience is the US attorney component. The Justice Department operates under strict rules for its prosecutors, built with checks and balances. On the other hand, in Cuyahoga County we have operated in a system so loose that almost anyone could have jumped on and taken it for a ride. The Tiki Hut and Hooker trial that will go on until after this election provides a clear view of how the county has operated. The only misleading aspect is that it appears what Dimora did was "small potatoes" compared to Russo looting the county property taxes for the benefit of his friends.
It is time for us, we here in Cuyahoga County, to look hard for an exceptional candidate to fill a difficult and complex job. To my mind, Subodh Chandra gives us the best chance to rebuild Criminal Justice in Cuyahoga County. That is surely something we need to do.
* Unless he thinks you are guilty.
“I am not a criminal-so what am I doing sitting here waiting for a criminal defense lawyer- Jay Milano?”
There sat the client and his wife on a bench outside of a courtroom.
They were young, good looking, hard working and had been trouble free. They were about to start their family. They had just received the news that she was pregnant. They looked much like they would have looked sitting and waiting for her OB/GYN- except they were surrounded by the usual suspects that haunt criminal courts.
They were frightened. They were also confused.
There had been an accident. A man had died. There had been two independent witnesses. Both had a clear view. Both said it was not the client’s fault.
Nevertheless, there they sat. He had been indicted for Vehicular Homicide. Vehicular Homicide means you killed a man with your car. It was your fault and the result of you breaking the law. The allegation alone changes your life.
This client was driving down a straight road in Lorain County. It was a sunny Saturday afternoon. No drinking, no drugs. He was traveling within the speed limit, following a car but not tailgating. Traffic was average.
The road was a bit confusing because there was a cross road, but it did not pass straight through. It came in on his right and dead-ended. The left turn was a few hundred feet further on the left.
As they came to the road on the right, the car in front of him slowed down. It looked like it was trying to turn left, but had nowhere to go. It moved forward a bit, started to turn left, hesitated and then started to turn again.
Like a video game the scene in front of the client exploded. The turning car was struck head on and started to spin. The client tried to avoid it but was struck and ended up in a ditch.
Everyone seemed all right. The old man in the left turning car did not appear to be injured. As a matter of caution, he was taken to the hospital. The highway patrol came and took pictures and interviewed everyone. They exchanged insurance information. Bad day, but things happen.
The old man died at the hospital.
The client learned of the death when a highway patrol officer came to interview him. The client reported that it all happened very quickly. It appeared the car in front tried to turn, hesitated and was struck by an oncoming car. It began to spin. The client tried to avoid the car as it spun, but he hit it and went off the road. “Weren’t there witnesses?” he asked. He felt terrible, but it was not his fault.
That was it, he thought. It was over.
In a few days he got a letter from a lawyer for the deceased’s family telling him to notify his insurance company, that he had caused the death. The insurance company informed him that he might be charged in the accident. They told him they would defend him in a civil case, but not a criminal case. They sent him the complete police report.
It was not over.
At this point, like most people, he thought that this would resolve itself. The police report had statements from two witnesses. They saw the accident exactly as he had seen it. The car tried to turn and was struck head on. The criminal part, he thought, would never happen. His insurance company would take care of the rest.
But he called and made an appointment. He thought it prudent to talk to a criminal defense lawyer since he was told he might be charged.
He came in with his wife. I reviewed the reports, told him that I would contact the Prosecutor’s Office and the Highway Patrol-just to make sure. I did. I got no answers except that the case was under investigation and they would let us know.
Three months passed, along with phone calls from the client and unanswered inquiries. Then he was indicted. He was charged with Vehicular Homicide. He was charged with causing the man’s death. It made no sense.
So there they were on a bench, in the hallway of the courthouse- him scared, her scared and pregnant.
Cases start with the Prosecutor and Defense Lawyer meeting to exchange information. I went, assuming that a close look at the witness statements would cause the Prosecutor to come to his senses.
The Prosecutor gave me the police reports to look over. There was a problem. There were pages missing. The only pages missing were the independent witness statements. The exact statements that exonerated the client were not there. They had not been presented to the grand jury that charged the client with a crime. They were not given to the Prosecutor.
There was no logical explanation that I could see. I believe to this day that the Policeman had taken sides. It is my opinion that someone deliberately withheld the witness statements.
Right or wrong or a coincidence, the only two independent witnesses were gone. If the client had not gotten the original police reports, then chances are no one would ever have known about them. They would have ceased to exist.
I pointed out to the Prosecutor that there were missing pages- very important pages. I showed them to him. He shrugged it off and said he would look into it. We were postponed a month. The clients were disappointed.
A month layer, same hallway, same bench, same scared client and his wife, her a little more pregnant.
The Prosecutor had no explanation. He had taken no action. He said that he and his colleagues would “round table” this case and likely dismiss it.
Hope. They were going to be reasonable. Despair, another delay. Being charged with a crime weighs more on you every day. You wake up in the middle of the night, and stay awake, thinking about nothing else.
A month later, same hallway, same bench, same scared client and his wife, her a little more pregnant.
This time we had a new Prosecutor. The Highway patrolman was also there. He sat down to explain to us how he knew what happened. He went through his version of the events and never mentioned the witnesses. The ones who said he was wrong. The ones who said the client was innocent. He walked out, cock sure that since he was a policemen, all would believe him.
The new prosecutor said she was concerned about the statements, but she had to look into it. Amazingly, she called to tell me that they were going to have an expert from the highway patrol examine the accident to see who was right. The argument became heated. She did not need an expert, that there were two eyewitnesses. The statements had been concealed. I did not dissuade her.
Two dynamics of criminal justice were at work here. First, once a charge is filed, it carries weight. It is very difficult to undo. A victim has been named. His family has rights and a very loud voice in court. To dismiss the case dishonors his death. Second, police and prosecutors work together every day. Prosecutors will do everything reasonably (and sometimes unreasonably) possible to protect their policemen.
A month later, same hallway, same bench, same scared client and his wife, her a little more pregnant.
This time a young highway patrolman came in and declared, without any hesitation, that he knew who had caused the accident. It was the client. He could tell by marks on the road that the witnesses were wrong. He was sure. It was astonishing that he dismissed the witnesses with such clarity. He had no real evidence. This young highway patrolman fully expected me to say “Yes, sir” and go out and tell the client that he and the witnesses were had met a greater force. He must surrender. He had better pled guilty.
Put it in writing, I said. Let us have an accident expert test your theory.
It is my opinion that this young highway patrolman who called himself an expert was willing to stretch his expertise (read the truth) to accommodate his friend (who, by this point, knew he had a major problem with hiding evidence).
Now we were set for Trial two months out. The wife would be seven months pregnant by then.
The Judge ordered the prosecutors to produce the young highway patrolman’s report. They never did. We let the Judge know two weeks before the trial that the State had not done what he told them to do.
Two days later, I got a phone call from the Prosecutor. The young highway patrolman would not put his opinion in writing. They would dismiss the case.
Three days later, as if another insult was necessary, we went back to Court. The clients sitting on the bench as they had done seven months before, she very pregnant, both of them very relieved.
The case was dismissed. It had been a year since it started.
My opinion: the original highway patrolmen took sides. He decided that it was the client’s fault and then, rather than investigating, just built a case. He did so even to the point of hiding evidence. His young buddy covered his ass as best he could, but in the end would not put himself on the line by joining in the lie.
People take criminal justice for granted. They assume the police are out to help them. If they just explain what happened, it will all be fine. Regularly people come to us in serious trouble, after having trusted their instincts or the policemen or an inexperienced or ineffective lawyer to “Straighten it out.”
Right now we represent a professional woman who thought she could explain away sloppy paperwork. She got charged with 6 felonies. A friend walked into our house, unannounced, a few weeks ago, desperate for information because her son’s lawyer would not talk to her. Had he done his job, the young man may never have been charged.
Criminal justice is hard. And it is counter-intuitive. It is not something you can do yourself.
PS The baby will soon be born. I will keep you apprised.
If anything comes up, for you or someone close to you, anything for which you might need a lawyer, just call. If it is not a problem, I’ll tell you. I am not in the business of scaring people. If there is a real problem, we will put it behind you.