Showing posts with label judges. Show all posts
Showing posts with label judges. Show all posts

24 June 2012

Absurdity Trumps Common Sense

by Louis Willis

In my March post, “The 13th Juror,” I discussed how a judge addicted to pain pills was removed from the bench because of his criminal activities in obtaining the pills. A special judge was appointed to decide if defendants in a 2007 carjacking-torture-murder case should get new trials. After the three male defendants were convicted, two of them were given life sentences. The ring leader received a death sentence. At the time the original judge was removed from the case, the female defendant had been found guilty of facilitation but had not been sentenced. The original judge I called P. The special Judge, whom I called G, without holding hearings, granted all four defendants new trials.

I’ve been following the latest developments in the case through the Knoxville News Sentinel because my daughter could still be on the witness list.

In his decision, Judge G concluded that Judge P’s addiction and criminal activities deprived the defendants of “constitutionally sound trials”. He also decided that he could not act as the 13th juror because of credibility issues with Judge P and the witnesses. The prosecutor appealed the decision to grant new trials to the three male defendants, but did not appeal the decision on the female because of Judge P’s erratic behavior during her trial.

The Tennessee Supreme Court concluded that Judge G was wrong in granting new trials and directed him to address the issue of whether the credibility of the witnesses was crucial in the state’s case. The Court stated that if Judge G concluded the witnesses’ credibility was key and could not evaluate their candor from the transcript alone, he must grant new trials. The Court further ruled that the defense must show proof of error before new trials may be granted. Despite the Supreme Court’s decision, Judge G again ordered new trials for the three male defendants without holding hearings.

The prosecutor filed a motion with Judge G requesting that he recuse himself. Judge G refused to recuse (On my, I’m channeling Johnny Cochran!). He even threaten the DA with contempt of court, and told the DA’s special counsel he should report himself to the state board that polices lawyers.

Failure to follow the Supreme Court’s directive is bad enough but what is most disturbing is Judge G’s off the record actions in an attempt to prevent public scrutiny. According to the Knoxville News Sentinel, he removed documents from the court records and ordered prosecutors not to refer to them in public. He corresponded with prosecutors through emails instead of issuing orders that would become part of the court record. He held meetings with lawyers in chambers instead of holding hearings. In his motion asking Judge G to recuse himself, the prosecutor cited emails in which the judge said little birdies were putting thoughts in his head.

Anyone should know, but especially a judge, that trying to keep judicial proceedings secret from the press in a high profile case is like trying to hide meat from a hungry pack of dogs. The press will smell something wrong in a New York minute (by the way, what is a New York minute?). Judge G allowed absurdity to trump common sense.

On Thursday, June 21, 2012, Judge G scheduled a hearing on the prosecution’s recusal motion for October 8, which will allow the DA to put his objections into the official record. Maybe, just maybe, common sense will begin to trump absurdity in this case.

The Blue Bird of Common Sense

12 April 2012

The Court Reporter's Tale

by Eve Fisher

            One of the many problems I have with courtroom dramas (let me count the ways!  and I probably will, as time goes along) is that they ignore court reporters.  They're there, taking notes, saying nothing, and vanish whenever anything happens.  And yet they're a pivotal, important part of any court.  
            Now, I admit I don't know how it's done in New York City, but in smaller cities and rural areas, every judge has his/her own personal court reporter.  These are long-lasting relationships - some for decades.  Always symbiotic; sometimes strange; usually very professional; sometimes not; and once in a while the kind to make any court administrator wake up in a cold sweat, with the words "sexual harassment law suit" running through their minds.  And court reporters are human beings, too:  I remember one court reporter who started dating one of the witnesses, surreptitiously, who later turned out to be heavily involved with the drug-dealing defendant.  That got wild and wooly:  the court reporter got shot one night, and the only reason the court reporter wasn't fired was that the judge used all of his considerable clout to prevent it.
            Judges will use their clout to protect their court reporter, because one of the worst things that can happen to a judge, other than being caught in a motel room with a minor the day before elections, is to lose their court reporter of long-standing.  This is hell for a couple of reasons:  (1) most judges depend on the court reporter to keep track of  everything for them and (2) they're going to have to break in a new court reporter, and no one - let me repeat, NO ONE - wants to be around while that's going on.  (http://www.stus.com/stus-cartoon.php?name=Court+Reporter&cartoon=blg5807)   There's also the problem of getting transcripts, but we'll get to that in a minute.   
            It's the court reporter who makes sure that the judge's life runs smoothly.  First of all, he/she keeps the judge's calendar.  That's a lot of clout right there.  You want an early hearing?  Or a delay?  Does the court reporter like you?  Know you from Adam's off ox?  Let's just say that any smart attorney keeps in very good with the court reporter. (Note this website about "gifting" - http://promotionholdings.com/legal/court-reporter-gifting-and-lawyer-ethics/  Not that it happens very often, of course.)  By the way, when the judge calls everyone into his/her chambers for some reason?  The court reporter is there.  When the judge goes golfing?  Court reporter often goes along.  When the judge is in chambers, thinking?  The court reporter is the guard dog on the threshold. 
            Other things on a court reporter's plate:  making sure the courthouse is set up to the judge’s personal specifications.  There's a whole list of things, from proper beverage on - or under - the bench, to the various requirements of life in the judges' chambers.  Hint:  When the court reporter tells you the judge wants M&Ms or Diet Seven-Up or only blue pens, get it before the fit is pitched.  Often the court reporter is also the judge's chauffeur, driving them to and from court (and here in South Dakota, that could be a considerable distance for a traveling judge).  Court reporters are also secretaries, valets, servants...  There's a wide range of duties.   
            Oh, and yes, they also take notes.  Either the very old fashioned way by hand (Bogie movies), 
or the old fashioned way (stenotype machine), or the new paperless way. 
Now the court reporter is hired by the state or the federal government (depending on judge’s level); but the government doesn’t pay for the court reporters’ equipment (which costs about $4,500).  This means that while the court reporter is paid for taking down the hearing or trial in court, the actual notes technically belong to the court reporter, and he/she is paid again for actually transcribing them.  “Double-dipping!” claim the accountants.  “Pay for our equipment!” cry the court reporters.  “No way in hell!” scream the bureaucrats.   And the situation continues.  By the way, in case you're wondering, transcripts currently cost around $2.00-$2.50 a page, or $1.25 a minute of court time, whichever costs more.  A court reporter who works for an active judge can make a pretty good living.  It's the free-lancers who are often close to starving...
 Let's talk for a minute about the records.  The old stenotype machines have only gone the way of the dinosaurs fairly recently.  They produced a stack of paper, about 3 inches by eternity, on which the transcript is coded; this code is in shorthand, and each court reporter had his/her own shorthand on top of that.  It could be very hard for one court reporter to read another court reporter’s notes.  (And that wasn't entirely by accident:  it's called job security.)  In the old days, the court reporter would read the paper tape and type it on a typewriter.  Then a computer.  And, finally, software was developed that could take those notes and format them into a word processing mode, but, since this requires translation from the shorthand, even this gets tricky.  For example, the words “their”, “there”, “they’re” and “the air” are all coded exactly the same.  So the court reporter has to both program the software to match his/her shorthand, and also remember what was actually said in the hearing.  Sometimes they don’t.  Sometimes they're not around because they're retired.  Sometimes they're dead.  
And that's when it gets tricky.  Because not all court notes get/got transcribed right away, or soon, or at all.  Think of all the hearings and trials that are held every day in every town and city:  they don't get transcribed unless they're specifically asked for.  Joe Blow pleads guilty to a DUI and gets sentenced to, say, a year's probation and time served .  Jill Smith gets caught robbing a casino, and gets 2 years.  There's a dispute over the construction of a driveway that goes to trial.  (I remember congratulating the judge on his ability to sleep with his eyes open on that one.) There's a jury trial about a possible child abuse case, and the person is acquitted.   Or one in which they're found guilty.  The paper is there, on tape, on record - but it may or may not ever be transcribed, because the real reason for transcription is a dispute over the verdict. That doesn't always happen.  Or at least, not right away.  In my days with the circuit court, I remember seeing stacks and stacks and stacks of tapes, dated and semi-labeled, that had never been transcribed, and probably never would be.  
Unless...  And what if...

25 March 2012

Failure of The 13th Juror

by Louis Willis

As I understand the 13th juror doctrine, a judge can overturn a jury verdict if he or she finds the evidence does not support it. In a carjacking and murder case here in Knoxville, a special judge overturned the guilty verdicts of four defendants and granted the three men and one woman new trials on the ground that the judge in the first trials failed in his duty to act as the 13th juror. 

In 2007, the three men carjacked a couple driving an SUV. They tortured and killed the man and burned his body on nearby railroad tracks. After torturing and raping the woman as the female defendant watched, they stuffed her body while she was still alive in a trash bag and threw the bag in a garbage can. 

Two of males were sentenced to life without parole in the first trials in 2009. The third, the ringleader, was sentenced to death. The female was found not guilty of participating in the carjacking and murder but was found guilty of facilitation and was sentenced to 53 years. 

For the sake of simplicity, I’ll call the first judge “P” and the second one “G.” In 2011, After an investigation by the Tennessee Bureau of Investigation, Judge P confessed to being addicted to pain pills and pleaded guilty to official misconduct. He began having sexual relations with a woman in 2009 who also supplied him with pills. She later introduced him to a felon on parole in his court who began providing him with pills. His criminal activities and association with criminals has caused a real legal mess. All of his cases are being examined. One defense attorney on another case argued that the evidence in Judge P’s case was so damning a reversal was automatically required. 

The DA argued that in the case of the three men that no errors were made. He admitted that during the woman’s trial, Judge P’s behavior was erratic. He decided not to ask for the death penalty for two of men and the woman in the new trials but will again ask for death for the ring leader.

My younger daughter was and probably still is on the prosecutor’s witness list. She wasn’t called to testify at the first trial and is hoping not to be called in the second one. She got on the list because about two or three days before they carjacked the couple, the three men were seen walking around her neighborhood in a suspicious manner. Later that night, they tried to break into her house and were scared off when a neighbor across the street fired his gun in their direction. My daughter called the police but they couldn’t get there quickly due to ongoing construction at both ends of the street. She wasn’t happy about being a witness at the trials because she was afraid the defendants' friends would come after her.

One of the male defendants explained during his trial that they wanted a car to use in a bank robbery. My daughter’s one year old SUV was in her driveway when they cased the neighborhood.

The victims’ parents and many Knoxville residents didn’t like Judge G’s decision. One newspaper columnist thought it was the right decision under the circumstances. The court has denied a request from the newspaper to unseal Judge P’s file. 

Judge P’s criminal activities might have had a negative affect on the trials, but should the verdicts be automatically reversed without a clear showing that he was under the influence of drugs and made errors in the cases of the three male defendants?

What do you think?

Postscript: On Saturday, the newspaper reported that the US Attorney is investigating Judge P’s case to determine if he violated any federal laws.

The Tennessee Court of Appeals has not decided whether to grant the state Attorney General’s request for a review of Judge G’s decision or to let the new trials go forward.