Tag Archives: Law

A small county murder’s nexus with a Puritan

My husband was  counsel to the defendant in a murder trial this week. The trial ran from Tuesday morning through today (Friday) around noon. The jury convicted the defendant of second-degree murder after deliberating an hour and a half. The slaying occurred a little more than two years ago.

The defendant, who has Parkinson’s Disease, testified that he feared the victim, with whom he was friends, because, he claimed, the victim had walked into his house, and because, he alleged, the victim had once shoved him (“threw me down”) on the stairs. The defendant also testified that the victim had robbed him at various times.

Things evidently didn’t improve, so when friend victim walked in, friend defendant shot him.  The .45 caliber bullet took quite a tour through the victim’s chest, heart, aorta, and arm. A medical autopsy expert testified and showed grizzly slides showing a very great deal of blood. I attended only Thursday morning; my chief interest in the trial was hearing the expert’s testimony.

Sentencing negotiations are underway. The defendant told me yesterday that he looks forward to prison.

I was reading The Bruised Reed by Puritan Richard Sibbes (1577–1635) today, recovering from the rare occasion of sitting in on a trial, even just one day, for just a few hours. I was there because I like the defendant. He thanked me very graciously for a roll I served him at the jail’s Thanksgiving dinner last year. My husband and I were among several people who helped serve the dinner. It was my favorite Thanksgiving of all time. But Sibbes had something serious to say that seemed connected to friend defendant:

“All light that is not spiritual, because it lacks the strength of sanctifying grace, yields to every little temptation, especially when it is fitted and suited to personal inclinations.” (Richard Sibbes: The Bruised Reed)

“Personal inclinations.” They should probably be treated like flashing signs at railroad crossings. Ignore them at terrible, bloody peril.

 

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Normalcy on the lam and back

I sat in this week on the trial of a man accused of Rape in the First Degree and Murder in the First Degree of a 69-year-old woman. This was my county’s first murder trial of the century; the last was is 1998. The crime occurred in November 2014. It took more than a year to acquire all the evidence, witnesses, experts, etc. necessary to bring the case to trial. The trial was scheduled to take five days, but it ended at 3:30 p.m. on day four.

My husband was the attorney representing the defendant. After hearing four days of testimony from witnesses and experts, the jury deliberated a bit less than an hour before delivering its verdict.

The jury’s finding of guilt on both counts charged was not unexpected; nor, in my opinion, was it unduly hasty. When there simply is no credible evidence to support the contrary, it is reasonable to find concurrence around what is credible, namely a fair amount of plausible factual evidence.

Although I am stiff and exhausted from four days of bench sitting, Effie posing as the very image of sweet normalcy champions the possibility that such a thing as normalcy is possible.

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Just another day in our peaceable happy valley. . .

Well, except for the gunshots, which I didn’t hear, because I was about 10 minutes away, on my way to town.

And I can see why putting up detour signs at the bottom of the hill, so that people wouldn’t have to drive up, only to be turned back, wasn’t a top priority.

I crested the minor arterial linking rural county with town, a couple of minutes later approaching the recycling center, where, less than an hour earlier, I had just dropped off our recycling on my way to town. Then I saw something very unusual—unusual for anywhere, much less for our rural section of one of our state’s smallest counties.

I had never before seen so many law enforcement vehicles along a street—anywhere—and I have lived in some high-crime metropolitan cities across the country.

The first word-image to enter my mind was actually “chariots of fire.” Nothing was on fire, but flashing red lights lined both sides and the middle of the road, nearly as far ahead as I could see. I thought it had to be a horrific accident, but I didn’t see an ambulance.

I later learned there were so many law enforcement cars because six agencies were involved: three county sheriff departments, and three city police departments. The State Patrol will conduct the investigation.

Cars proceeded at a slow pace. I could see that the drivers were speaking with a law enforcement officer, turning around in a parking lot, and heading back toward town. It all seemed so strange that my mind switched completely off conjecture mode. I simply waited my turn to ask the sheriff’s deputy what was going on.

My turn soon came, and I asked whether there had been an accident. Our sheriff’s department is a model of courtesy and efficiency, truly. The deputy told me there had been a foot pursuit, and that all suspects were in custody. “Good!” I responded, lifting my thumb. The deputy gave me instructions for the extensive detour. I assumed the road closure was still in effect for evidence gathering.

I was able to get to the neighborhood market to pick up our meat order. Thankfully, it was on the side of the detour that made it accessible from the detour and to my way home. Later in the day, as I followed gradually unfurling news updates, I learned that the neighborhood market’s window took a bullet before I arrived, probably while I was on my way to town. But the store remained open, and there was no buzz about the window.

Following the local news updates throughout the day, I learned that a Drug Task Force operation had gone south; that gunshots were fired near a middle school and an elementary school; that there had been a car-to-car exchange of gunfire between a car containing five fugitives and one piloted by a law enforcement officer; and that another brave officer finally rammed the fugitives’ car with his own, bringing the car chase to a halt.

Things like this are generally speculated to be about as frequent as asteroid impacts in our surrounds. I’ve only lived here five years, but I’m skeptical of native intelligence. I believe in the ubiquity of sin.

Thankfully, no one was hurt. The schools were on lockdown most of the day, their last day of the school year.

Our judge has assigned my husband to defend one of the five suspects: one of two men charged with firing at police officers, as well as four felony counts of assault in the first degree.

God’s largesse to my small dumb self throughout yesterday morning stands out to me—again, like chariots of fire—as I contemplate the timeline of the day’s events and my providential removal from their midst.

But given my husband’s involvement as defense counsel, the case will, of course, remain in my midst, though in a more abstract way, for months to come. And that’s okay, too.

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The ruling

Tuesday, the judge found the defendant my husband represented in the case I dubbed “The Great Drug House Burglary Caper” guilty of two felony counts: one for accomplice to armed robbery, and one for accomplice to armed burglary. The judge sentenced the man to 220 months in prison. That’s about half as long as he’s lived so far.

Due to security concerns for the public and the attorneys, the judge decided against holding a public sentencing hearing. The bailiff and the jail commander had both referred to the “logistical nightmare” of keeping us all safe during the trial. On a break during the trial, the gallant bailiff secured my promise of a couple of precautions. He thought I was standing too close to the unshackled defendants while chatting with one of the attorneys. “Please don’t do that to me,” he said. I heard and obeyed.

A sentencing hearing could mean “nothing more to lose” to a pair of violent offenders. Instead of a sentencing hearing, the judge issued written rulings for both defendants, and my husband and the co-defendant’s attorney had to go through the sentence provisions with their clients in jail.

Special security provisions for the safety of my husband and his colleague were in place at the jail. The jail commander expressed his pressing aspiration that, as soon as the mission of delivering the bad news to his client was accomplished, my husband would be able to go home to his “very nice and engaging” wife.

The convicted man took the news very hard, with visible physical agitation, but his temper remained subdued, and he did not become retaliatory. Still, these things are not my favorite things to think about.

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Reflections on The Great Drug House Burglary Caper

I know; it’s been 10 days since I’ve posted to my blog, and it’s probably a record high at that. It isn’t for lack of material, so much as lack of focus and deliberation to write about the material.

I attended a trial for parts of three days this week. My husband was representing one of the defendants in an armed burglary case, a very strange case I dubbed The Great Drug House Burglary Caper.

The first day consisted primarily in procedural motions; I was in my element that far. The following days of witness testimony were something entirely else. One witness actually summed it up adroitly in a response to the prosecutor: “You really don’t understand the world we live in at all.” It was one of few things she said that corroborated with the spirit of the testimony given by most of the other witnesses.

The case had an uncommon dearth of undisputed facts. This was a bench trial; the judge alone will sort through the boggy testimony and make his ruling as to guilt or innocence on the various counts. Both defendants took their attorneys’ wise counsel and waived jury trial.

I’ve worked as a public defender, and I never understood my clients’ worlds first-hand, either. I’ve never experienced anything that caused me to abnegate God’s ordered world and live to get high so I could survive all of creation’s disappointments. But I suppose we all meet some folks we think of as fellow terrestrials, and also some interesting lifeforms, along the way.

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Of pheasants and men

Something about lenses must be encoded in the DNA of all birds. Any time that I pick up and aim my phone, binoculars, or camera to take a picture of a bird or see him better, he flies off, even though he had been gleaning our garden or perching on a post for the several minutes preceding. They must see every lens as a potential scope rifle.

I think I understand how they feel, but it saddens me to generate such fear of destruction.

My husband has been assigned to represent the defendant in the murder case from hell. It’s Clarkston’s first murder trial of the century; according to the local paper, the last one took place in the late 1990s. Appended to all news accounts, of course, are reader comments—and I use the term “reader” provisionally. One such reader took the opportunity to suggest hanging the accused to save the expense of a trial. She was evidently unaware that Washington no longer executes by hanging, but has gone to the more torturous and less reliable method of lethal injection. Nor is our concerned citizen up to speed on our Governor’s moratorium on executions.

I mention this to explain why I wish I could talk to pheasants.

Yesterday, two pheasants were chortling away as they ate amaranth seeds in our now-dormant garden. I wanted to photograph them through the window, but as soon as I picked up my phone, they raised the frequency of their throaty voices, and their blurred wings beat back the air behind them.

We have pheasants in our yard all the time; I had no need to take their picture. What I really wanted, was to understand their vigorous discussion as they chortled in chorus while eating at the same time.

Perhaps the pheasants suggest a human counterpart, after all.

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some points concerning presumed guilt

My husband and I have both fielded the same question uncounted times: “How can you stand to represent a client when you know he’s guilty?” My husband is a public defender, and before I retired from the practice of law, I handled assigned counsel felony cases. It was challenging, sometimes frustrating work, but I would never call it thankless.

For one thing, most of my clients ended our publicly appointed alliance with at least a “Thanks, I know you tried,” before being handcuffed for transport either back to county jail or off to state prison.

Nevertheless, the question always prompts me to ask how anyone with the equivalent of a high school education in America, whether public, private, or homeschooling, can ask that. How can they have such a tenuous grasp of fundamental American values and legal processes? But I suppose they didn’t all have the cultural advantage of growing up watching Perry Mason blow the prosecutor out of the water when Perry exacted a confession from the real killer in court. And they didn’t all have the teachers I had for fifth-grade Social Studies and twelfth-grade American Government.

As an aside, the word transliterated “paraclete” in John 14:26 and 15:26, translated “helper” or “advocate,” that refers to the Holy Spirit that Christ will send through the Father, is the same Greek word that refers to someone who comes alongside an accused person summoned to the magistrate for questioning. The word literally means “alongside one called.” The right of support when one stands otherwise alone in a potentially life-changing, or even potentially life-forfeiting situation, is a God-given one.

When asked how a lawyer can take up the cause of someone he knows is guilty, the appropriate initial response is, How do you know he’s guilty? The judge doesn’t even know that yet–and he’s the one who will ultimately pronounce him guilty–or not guilty.

The defendant may or may not have broken the law as he is accused of doing, but he isn’t guilty unless and until the State proves its case beyond a reasonable doubt. Is there evidence that supports his innocence? Does he have defenses that compel a jury to exonerate him from the charges?

Admittedly, the prosecutor prevails more often than not, and the PD is alongside the defendant, now adjudicated guilty, to mitigate the damage at a sentencing hearing. My husband likens these situations to “a controlled crash landing of a burning aircraft.” It should not seem entirely odd that people who use drugs and/or commit other crimes tend to be self-destructive.

Trials are actually fairly exceptional in real life. Generally, the defendant agrees to a guilty plea, the PD and the prosecutor work out deals, and the judge accepts the plea bargain. The defendant receives a lower jail sentence, or goes to drug treatment, or does some sort of community service for pleading guilty instead of going to trial.

The right to counsel inheres in the Sixth Amendment to the United States Constitution. The right to have assigned counsel provided was guaranteed in the United States Supreme Court decision Gideon v. Wainwright, 372 U.S. 335 (1963), in which the Court found that counsel must be provided to indigent defendants in all felony cases.

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Breath, not death, is the mother of beauty (Wallace Stevens notwithstanding)

Last night’s thunderstorm wasn’t the usual tonic summer storm conducive to sleep. Lightning flashed like a repeater beacon, thunder rolled in long roaring sequences, one closely following the other, as though the sky could scarcely catch its breath between rumblings; and rain pelted our minute speck of earth with a ferocity one might associate with a huge angry bear, dispossessing a swarm of bees of a honeycomb.

I love storms, but waking frequently throughout the night isn’t exactly fortifying to my already low energy. But there are a few “happilys” this morning. Happily, my most strenuous Wednesday task, dusting objects and surfaces within my reach, can wait an hour until my coffee kicks in. Even more happily, the rain tamped down the dust that always blows in the Heights. And most happily, I received the world’s cutest grandkid video from my daughter this morning, in which she is marching around several crates of tomatoes, playing her husband’s trumpet, while her nearly 2-year-old daughter marches in step behind mommy, grabbing a tomato and trying to play it like a trumpet. She’s just marvelous! You probably had to be there. 🙂 My sharing of the tomato march video prompted one of my friends to send photos of her family’s new Airedale puppy. Tough call on the Comparative Cuteness Index this time.

The mellow-hued calm that follows our valley’s thunderstorms belies the agitations of full-day felony and misdemeanor dockets that occupy my husband two very long days each week. Most of the rest of his time is spent meeting with clients at the jail and in his office, various plea and bail hearings, and trial preparation. “Bad town?” one of my friends queries. Not really. Some elements. Drugs and a lousy economy don’t help; and neither does the ironic comfort-turned-boredom-turned-despair of people who stay on in homey places nobody leaves. They don’t leave for a lot of reasons, and they’re no less likely to engage in unfruitful lives as lawbreakers where they grew up than somewhere else. When you’re estranged from life, you’re estranged wherever you are. Our jail is usually filled above capacity. When the crowd thins, it’s almost as often due to inmate transfers to state prisons as it is to releases.

But it’s God in Whom we live and move and have our being; it’s God who brought us here to do the work He put before us to do. And it’s a beautiful place to which He has brought us, now nearly three years ago.

The sun is shining, there’s dust in the air, it’s 80° before 10 A M, and you wouldn’t know it ever rained.

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reflections on a termination case

Purple vetch and white yarrow bloom all over the back of our property: our field is now a meadow. It’s amazing how life goes on. . .but then, wildflowers have a resilience that is beyond certain sabotaging human machinations, particularly the ordinary and necessary human machinations known as human government.

There is no question that God ordained human government; and, even as He did so, He issued appropriate warnings about the human rights human government would abridge. But the people of Israel demanded a king.

“6 Give us a king to judge us. . . .” 10 So Samuel told all the words of the Lord to the people who were asking for a king from him. 11 He said, “These will be the ways of the king who will reign over you: he will take your sons and appoint them to his chariots and to be his horsemen and to run before his chariots. 12 And he will appoint for himself commanders of thousands and commanders of fifties, and some to plow his ground and to reap his harvest, and to make his implements of war and the equipment of his chariots. 13 He will take your daughters to be perfumers and cooks and bakers. 14 He will take the best of your fields and vineyards and olive orchards and give them to his servants. 15 He will take the tenth of your grain and of your vineyards and give it to his officers and to his servants. 16 He will take your male servants and female servants and the best of your young men and your donkeys, and put them to his work. 17 He will take the tenth of your flocks, and you shall be his slaves. 18 And in that day you will cry out because of your king, whom you have chosen for yourselves, but the Lord will not answer you in that day.” (1Samuel 8:6, 10-18, ESV)

Not having trusted in God’s own governance, we the people have a long- established, largely unquestioned, history of human government to order the spheres of their lives, and to protect and discipline them.

My husband closed an excruciating case this week. He represented a mother of two children and one on the way, whose parental rights the State sought to terminate. Her third child would be born into the waiting arms of someone else whom the State approved.

Whether my husband is out on the tractor or before the court, I enjoy watching him work. I’ve worked in the field of public health and I’m a retired attorney. I took an interest in this case because of this mother’s pluck: she’s no “mope.” So I sat in on most of the trial. I’ll call the mom Rikki.

Rikki is diagnosed as developmentally impaired, with a bi-polar disorder of one type or other, and near-average intelligence. It seems that fairly obvious safety concerns don’t particularly occur to her, but once instructed that, for instance, it isn’t safe for the baby to pick up and eat puppy poo (the term all the professionals on the witness stand used), she immediately implements the correction.

A fleet of psycho-social therapists, social workers, a guardian ad litem, and a smug foster mother whose chief delight in life appeared to be brandishing the deficiencies of natural parents whose place she has taken, all testified as to the deficiencies in Rikki’s housekeeping, awareness of safety concerns, and mental instability. The bleak humanistic theme of doom permeated the testimony: She can’t do better. She’ll never improve. And she’s a snotty little rebel who doesn’t even appreciate what we’re doing for her!

She does appreciate their efforts, but not entirely. She doesn’t find it quite fair that she can’t qualify for certain programs she feels would help her improve her parenting skills. She fails to qualify because her IQ is too high. The State’s logic seems to be that Rikki isn’t stupid enough to learn.

Her friends upheld her well and drew a far sunnier portrait of a young, once-married mom, whose life was catapulted into the State Child Protective Services dragnet. One evening, Rikki, her baby in her arms, tripped over something that was out of place, and fell on the baby. The baby’s skull was fractured. The ER visit saved the baby and resulted in a CPS investigation. The rest, like Rikki’s family, is history.

I have to say that the judge ruled correctly. He applied the law to the facts and his sheer horror over puppy poo in the house was no doubt appropriate. He served justice as protector of the helpless. His duty lay with the best interest of the child, not with the mother and any future virtues she might or might not acquire. He served the will of the king we demanded around 1120 BC. But with the best of kings or the worst of kings, some things are just hard. Some things are just sad.

My fervent hope for Rikki is that her life, now a cropped, scorched field, might be at last a meadow.

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Leave marriage to the T-men

The United States Department of the Treasury is the obvious choice—not the courts—for the proper agency to look after the newly pressing question of who should be permitted to marry whom. If we wish to charge non-elected representatives of government (i.e., SCOTUS Justices) with regulating something contentious, while overseeing every possible contextual detail so as to ensure that none of the contenders emerges a winner, then USDOT is our go-to agency.

Think about it: there is no way marriage could ever become more complex than the Internal Revenue Code alone, much less all the other regulatory functions of USDOT. Treasury Secretary Lew strikes me as ably qualified to arrange marriages, having experience in all sorts of domestic matters, including: “. . .and he was responsible for domestic and economic issues, including Medicare, budget, tax, trade, appropriations, and energy issues. . .” (from USDOT website)

I should mention that I don’t actually believe that marriage rightly belongs in the arena of public opinion. I believe the who-whom thing was worked out at the earliest recorded point in human history, at Genesis 2:22-24. But that doesn’t mean governments cannot regulate marriage: the reality is that we appoint magistrates to oversee various sectors of life in a responsible, responsive republic, to promote the general welfare, regulate taxation, see to the national defense, and other things; in fact, probably far too many other things. We just don’t like these people to become too responsible, to the point of tyranny, or too responsive, to the point of being swayed by every breeze of public opinion.

Right now, Federal and state governments and Federal and state courts are jockeying to determine who among them gets to decide who can marry whom. I suggest we simply toss the gig into USDOT’s broad lap. Rationale? Because marriage would be safe there; no one would worry about it or attempt any innovative changes to it. Marriage would continue to exist, yet not exist as a public cause, in largely the same holding pattern as the $16.7 trillion national debt.

Welcome to the inevitably disorderly new order. . .But fear not: disorder soon dissolves into harmless chaos.

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