FindLaw Blotter: April 2009 Archives
FindLaw Blotter - The FindLaw Crime and Criminals Blog

April 2009 Archives

It appears this might be a big week for serial killer cold cases. First, a California woman yesterday claimed her dad was the infamous Zodiac killer, now CNN reports that police have linked 72-year-old John Floyd Thomas Jr. to a couple of Los Angeles murders that happened over 30 years ago. Police further indicated that Thomas could be connected to "as many as 30 murders and dozens of rapes during the 1970s and 1980s", crimes which appear to have targeted older women.

Indeed, the L.A. Times noted that "'When all is said and done, Mr. Thomas stands to be Los Angeles' most prolific serial killer,'" according to an LAPD Robbery-Homicide Cold Case detective. John Floyd Thomas had previously been convicted of sexual assault, but was arrested last month for the murder of two elderly women in the 1970's.

A California woman claims that her father, one Guy Ward Hendrickson, was the Zodiac killer, reports the San Francisco Examiner. Yes, if 47-year-old real estate agent Deborah Perez's claims turn out to be true, one of history's most notorious and apparently elusive serial killers, would turn out to be a former carpenter from Southern California.

Unfortunately, going directly to the source on this claim won't be possible, considering that Guy Ward Hendrickson died in 1983. Also, up front, it should be noted that Perez is currently taking part in a documentary about the killings, so perhaps a big (huge?) grain of salt is called for here.

However, Perez did go so far as to say she was at the scene of one of the Zodiac killings and wrote some of the notes that the infamous killer sent to police and media. She explained, "I was a child and just thought I was helping my dad." Perhaps keeping quiet about it for decades might also have turned out to be pretty helpful to her dad? Well, she explains she didn't even know about the Zodiac killer "until she saw a composite drawing on America's Most Wanted several years ago and, after looking at letters online, determined it was her father. Hendrickson had confessed to his daughter that he had killed people, but never said he was the Zodiac Killer".

NFL Player Santonio Holmes' Marijuana Case May Depend on Validity of Traffic Stop

Santonio Holmes of the Pittsburgh Steelers was arraigned yesterday on a misdemeanor marijuana charge stemming from an incident in October of last year, reports the AP. The Superbowl MVP was represented at the hearing by his attorney, Robert DelGreco Jr., who indicated that he will be filing a motion to suppress evidence challenging the constitutionality of the traffic stop. If the motion were to be successful, it could make the drug evidence found during the traffic stop inadmissible in court against Holmes (quite possibly killing the prosecution's case).

Although, only sparse facts were provided in the story, it appears that the constitutional challenge may hinge on whether police had a valid reason to pull over Santonio Holmes and conduct a traffic stop. The story noted that "Pittsburgh police said they found three marijuana-filled cigars in Holmes' car when he was pulled over Oct. 23. Holmes was stopped because his car was similar to one they were looking for in a drug sting." It was thereafter that a cooperative (perhaps exceedingly so) Holmes reportedly "alerted officers to the drugs". Inquiries into the constitutionality of traffic stops are very fact-intensive and if a mistake by police is involved (such as misidentifying a car), the issue might depend on the reasonableness of the mistake.

Report Highlights "Massive Waste", Heavy Caseloads, in Misdemeanor Courts

Counties and government officials looking to cut down on spending in light of tightening state and local budgets might want to take a good look at a report released yesterday by the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers. The title pretty much speaks for itself, "Minor Crimes, Massive Waste: The Terrible Toll of America's Misdemeanor Courts".

Considering the news last week that one cash strapped California county district attorney's office was going to entirely stop prosecuting various misdemeanors and even some felonies, some of the report's recommendations might be well-timed. An AP story indicates that the NACDL report suggests that "[t]reating petty, nonviolent misdemeanors as infractions rather than crimes would save millions of dollars and better protect defendants' rights without hurting public safety".

Rev. Michael Massaro of the Holy Cross Catholic Church in Florida still had forgiveness to dole out after a violent day at his confessional last Saturday, which was when 57-year-old Josephine Gatchell allegedly decided to take a "big knife" (in her words) and stab Rev. Massaro twice in the back.

CNN passed on Reverend Michael Massaro's description of his horrific experience at confessional:

Massaro said he thought he had one last confession to hear at about 12:15 p.m. on Saturday. A woman was waiting for him, apparently wanting to be be the last one in.

"I was in the confessional, putting my coat on, and felt a piercing sensation in my back left side," the priest recalled. "I looked up and she was standing there, and I felt it again in my back. Then I realized I was stabbed and my hand was covered with blood."

Massaro said his alleged attacker stared at him but never said a word.

"I ran and got to the car and hoped I could make it to the hospital before I passed out. I was worried about becoming unconscious. Thanks be to God that I didn't hurt anyone driving," he said.

Springing up in cities across the nation, superheroes now walk the streets to fight "crime and injustice" wherever they find it. No, these real life superheroes have not mutated into their current superhero forms, nor were they subjected to some laboratory mishap. These are apparently simply ordinary folk trying to do something extraordinary to help their respective communities.

A WLWT story gave the break-down on one superhero in Cincinnati calling himself "Shadowhare" (he would not reveal his identity), who explained what he and others like him do:

"We help enforce the law by doing what we can in legal standards, so we carry handcuffs, pepper spray ... all the legal weapons," said Shadowhare. "We will do citizen's arrests. We will intervene on crimes if there is one happening in front of us."

Although their efforts are, in a sense, commendable with respect to their aims, these crime-fighters may be exposing themselves to significant legal consequences. Unlike police officers, who have a considerable degree of immunity for their actions, and even their mistakes, while on duty, these masked crusaders have no legal shield to protect them from a variety of criminal and civil consequences.

CA County D.A. Decides Not to Prosecute Certain Crimes at All: Is that Legal?

A California county District Attorney is taking a rather extreme step in addressing budgetary shortfalls in his office, according to the San Francisco Chronicle. Contra Costa County District Attorney Robert Kochly announced that the county will no longer prosecute "[m]isdemeanors such as assaults, thefts and burglaries". Not only that, but added to the list of budget-saving measures are felony drug cases involving low quantities of narcotics, plus misdemeanor drug charges.

The story clarified that this means:

"... anyone caught with less than a gram of methamphetamine or cocaine, less than 0.5 grams of heroin and fewer than five pills of ecstasy, OxyContin or Vicodin won't be charged."

That's not all, either. Break minor traffic laws? Not a problem. Enjoy vandalizing stuff? No worries there. Shoplifting? Go for it! None of those crimes will be getting pursued, and county D.A. Kochly provided this explanation:

Shylea Thomas' Adoptive Mom Charged with Second Degree Murder

In an update regarding the potentially hefty charges facing the adoptive mother (and biological aunt) of quadriplegic 9-year-old Shylea Myza Thomas (read original post on story here), CNN reports that Lorrie Thomas has indeed now been charged with second degree murder and child abuse (plus tampering with evidence).

Another report from the Flint Journal indicates that even though an autopsy report actually found "no signs of physical trauma", the preliminary findings do indicate that Shylea died as a result of "chronic malnourishment and neglect", which would be bourne out by the fact that she weighed only 33 pounds at the time of her death.

Pregnant Lady Chased by Bear Becomes Hit and Run Victim, but Finds Baby Name

A pregnant Colorado woman had a close encounter of the fuzzy kind on Thursday morning on a trail in Colorado Springs, and that was just the start of her troubles! KDVR-TV reports that Ashley Swendsen, who is 6-months pregnant, was on a trail early yesterday morning when she, in her own words, "heard a rustle. I looked behind me and it was a bear--2 feet away".

To Swendsen's credit she didn't just bolt for the hills, as would probably be most people's reaction seeing a bear 2 feet away from them. She just kept walking, but unfortunately, the bear decided to keep pace with her. At that point, she decided to test her legs versus the bear's (FYI, apparently this is generally a bad idea) and Swendsen made a run for it. Miraculously, she somehow made it to a street, and with it, safety...or was it? Well this is the crime Blotter, after all, and bears (last I checked) can't be criminals.

In a sad and disturbing story, CNN and the Associated Press reported about Shylea Myza Thomas, a 9-year-old quadriplegic child, whose body was found Thursday in a "black trash bag, stuffed into a plastic bin with mothballs and locked in a storage unit" in Michigan. Another report indicates that Lorrie M. Thomas, Shylea's 39-year-old adoptive mother (and also her aunt), has been taken into custody while charges against her are weighed by authorities. Court documents, which were filed to take custody of seven other children in the home, also identified a 39-year-old as Lorrie Thomas of Flint.

Apparently, Shylea Thomas had been pulled out of school way back in January of this year, and her relatives indicated that they hadn't seen her in six weeks (a neighbor didn't even know she lived at the home). Authorities have speculated that the mothballs found with the body were put there "in an apparent attempt to mask odors from the dead body". Also, Lorrie Thomas had repeatedly told authorities that Shylea "was out of state". Still, authorities are waiting on the results of an autopsy before they move forward with any charges.

Judge Thomas E. Stringer of Florida reportedly has burned down his otherwise-gleaming career with a string of bad decisions, all starting when he met stripper Christy Yamanaka. In its story about Judge Stringer's downfall, the AP included a perfect quote written by then-Tampa Tribune columnist Daniel Ruth, "It is axiomatic that 'Judge' and 'Stripper' showing up in a headline is never a good thing, especially if you happen to be the 'Judge'". Stringer has probably found that to be accurate, and his downward spiral was summarized as follows:

"[Yamanaka] said she met the judge at an Italian restaurant in 1995, when she was a stripper in Tampa. Five years later, she was deep in debt and turned to him for advice. Later, she said she went public after Stringer refused to repay money he owed her."

If that sounds a bit weird (or perhaps backward), Yamanaka had an explanation:

Allen Andrade Convicted of Murdering Transgender Teen

Following up on the trial of Allen Andrade for the 2008 murder of transgender teen Justin "Angie" Zapata, CNN reports that Andrade has been convicted of first degree-murder. In addition, 32-year-old Andrade was also convicted of committing a bias-motivated crime.

As discussed in a prior post, this could represent the first time someone has been prosecuted (and convicted) under Colorado's bias statute for having committed a crime against a transgender individual. CNN added:

"This is a landmark decision," said Mindy Barton, the legal director of the GLBT Community Center of Colorado. Barton attended the trial daily.

"Hearing 'guilty on first-degree murder' and 'guilty of bias-motivated crime' was a hugely emotional experience for all the family, friends and the supporters of Angie," Barton added.

"She will not be forgotten."

The Madlyn Primoff Case: Child Endangerment or Just Discipline?

A New York mom/attorney might have met her toughest legal opponent in the form of her two fighting kids. Madlyn Primoff, a partner at a respected New York law firm, apparently just couldn't take it anymore after her two children, ages 10 and 12, bickered in the car. Primoff's solution? Get out! She gave the kids the boot and drove off (they were reportedly about 3 miles away from home).

As reported by the Journal News/LoHud.com, the 12-year-old managed to catch up to her mom and was allowed back in the car, but the 10-year-old wasn't so lucky (or fast?). She ended up getting picked up by a passerby who saw her crying, "bought her ice cream and contacted White Plains police." Primoff later reported the younger daughter to police as missing, and was told that she was safe at another police station. But when Madlyn showed up to pick her up, she was promptly arrested for misdemeanor child endangerment.

Piracy Charges Brought Against Somali Man in Maersk Alabama Case

FindLaw has obtained a copy of the charges brought against the Somali man accused in the Maersk Alabama cargo ship hijacking that ultimately ended with the dramatic rescue of the ship's captain, Captain Richard Phillips. The alleged pirate, Abduwali Abdukhadir Muse, was according to the charges "the first pirate to board the Maersk Alabama," and he fired his gun at Captain Richard Phillips.

Amongst other things, the indictment charges Muse with "piracy as defined by the law of nations" and elaborated on the charge stating that Muse "unlawfully, willfully and knowingly seized and robbed, and aided and abetted the seizure and robbery" of the Maersk Alabama. Federal conspiracy, hijacking, firearm, and kidnapping charges were also brought against Muse.

The charges give some in depth details into the hijacking of the Maersk. For example, Muse allegedly "told the Captain to stop the ship...conducted himself as the leader of the pirates," and also demanded money from Captain Phillips. The Captain reportedly gave Muse and two other pirates approximately $30,000 in cash from the ship's safe. The charges also describe Phillips' ill-fated escape attempt, his recapture, and beating.

The Supreme Court today trimmed down police authority to search the passenger compartment of a vehicle after they've made an arrest on an occupant. Under the rule outlined by the Court, police may search the passenger compartment of a vehicle after arresting an occupant only if "it is reasonable to believe" that the arrestee might be able to access the vehicle or that the vehicle contains evidence related to the offense he or she got arrested for.

The case, captioned Arizona v. Gant, involved an Arizona man who got arrested for driving with a suspended license. He was then handcuffed and locked up in the back of a police car. At that point, police went ahead and searched the inside of Gant's car and found some drugs in a jacket that was on the backseat. Gant's attorney tried to have the drug evidence thrown out of court by arguing it was the product of an illegal search, but failed at the trial level.

Gant was already arrested, so how could police legally go ahead and rummage through his vehicle on the spot? The explanation from the perspective of police was that, under well-established law, police are allowed to conduct searches of vehicles "incident to arrest" without a warrant. This means that when police make a valid arrest of a vehicle's occupant, they are permitted to search not only the person, but also the immediate area around them, which can include the passenger compartment of the vehicle (plus containers therein).

As hoped for, it looks like authorities have moved quickly in the so-called "Craigslist Killer" case. An arguably unlikely suspect has been charged in the murder of Julissa Brisman, the aspiring model/actress who was killed at an upscale Boston hotel in an apparent botched burglary possibly set up via Craigslist. CNN reports that Philip Markoff, a 22-year-old pre-med student at Boston University, has been charged with Brisman's murder. Further, Markoff may have been going on some kind of Craigslist robbery spree, as police charged him with armed robbery and kidnapping in relation to another victim at a different Boston hotel.

A few more details were reported regarding the deadly confrontation:

"The confrontation between Brisman and her killer seems to have begun as an attempted robbery, police said. "It appears that there was a struggle between the victim and the suspect in the threshold of the hotel room immediately prior to the shooting..."

Supreme Court May Consider Case of Teen "Lifer" Joe Sullivan

An earlier post touched on the issue of whether the criminal justice system properly sentences juvenile offenders who commit serious offenses as "lifers" (i.e. offenders sentenced to life without possibility of parole). CNN today put out a related story about 33-year-old Joe Sullivan, a convicted burglar and rapist, who hopes that that Supreme Court will take up that very issue in his case.

Sullivan committed his offenses back in 1989 when he was only 13 years old, and he now is challenging it by arguing that his sentence was "cruel and unusual punishment for someone who was barely a teenager at the time of his crime." Sullivan's case might be a tough one for the Court to pass up because, aside from the fact that he was so young when he committed the offenses, there is also the added fact that no one was killed in the crimes. This is, of course, not to say that the offense was not heinous, because it certainly was, considering he was found guilty of the burglary and rape of a 72-year-old woman. Nevertheless, it is the next-to-worst possible sentence levied for a crime that did not involve a homicide.

What is 420 and Does it Mark a "New Era" for Legalized Marijuana this Year?

Today is April 20, or 4/20, which is no big deal right? Well, that might depend on your point of view, and maybe even your state of mind. If, as a New York Times story suggests, you are a "marijuana fan" then today just happens to be the unofficial day (and/or hour) of celebration for your product of choice (see one version of the history on the term). On the other hand, if you are in law enforcement, today is likely a day calling for greater vigilance and crackdowns to prevent any unwanted consequences or fallout from 420 "festivities" (which would apparently include "campus smoke-outs, concerts and cannabis festivals").

Regardless of anyone's take on the day itself however, the N.Y. Times piece did call attention to the possibility that the legalization of marijuana has arguably been gaining momentum, and that this 420, as one event sponsor put it, "will 'turn the Big Apple into the Baked Apple and help us usher in a new era of marijuana freedom in America.'" But is that really so?

Shiba Inu Taped to Fridge Leads to Serious Legal Consequences for Colorado Woman

An angry Colorado woman who decided to "pack up" her boyfriend's dog, Rex, for him because he wouldn't get rid of it himself, now got herself into a heap of legal trouble. 20-year-old Abby Toll somehow thought that wrapping the dog in packing tape and sticking it upside down on a fridge would get the message across to her boyfriend.

Nope, it got the two of them in a fight, and it got Abby Toll in jail. For her troubles, Abby was charged with felony cruelty to animals, plus she also got some bonus drug possession and additional charges. Her boyfriend, 21 year old Bryan Beck, himself faces lesser charges, so his hands apparently weren't entirely clean in this whole ugly affair. Rex, on the other hand, is going to score himself a new home, as he has been taken to a shelter and will be put up for adoption.

The AP gave some brief specifics on the allegations:

"Police say Toll, 20, used packing tape to bind the legs, snout and tail of Beck's dog, Rex, a Japanese breed called a Shiba Inu."

Abby has now been released on $12,500 bond and declined to comment to the AP. Colorado has a fairly stiff animal cruelty law under Colorado Revised Statutes 18-9-202, which states in relevant part:

Antwon Tanner, aka "Skills", Has None for Social Security Fraud

Actor Antwon Tanner, who plays the character "Skills" on the CW show One Tree Hill apparently decided to put his money-making skills to the test via Social Security fraud, reports the New York Daily News. Unfortunately for him, the result was that he got caught in a sting operation and got slapped with a 2-count indictment for purportedly "selling bogus Social Security numbers and cards".

The fraudulent scheme was allegedly planned and carried out between 2005 and 2008, and the story described one take on Tanner's involvement as having "supplied 16 Social Security numbers and three bogus Social Security cards to a middleman who sold them to an undercover Immigration and Customs Enforcement agent". Apparently some of the numbers were non-existent, others for dead people, and some actually did belong to people. Tanner also allegedly used the mail system to send the fake cards around.

Howard O. Kieffer, 54, appeared in a slew of federal courts representing clients ranging from a former NHL hockey player to a child porn defendant. The only problem is that he wasn't a licensed attorney, reports the AP. To be more accurate, he actually was licensed to practice in federal courts, but those licenses were obtained via fraud, considering that he didn't go to law school and wasn't licensed to practice in any state. Despite his blatant lack of verified credentials, Kieffer still managed to fool plenty of people, including his attorney "colleagues", for a number of years. But it only took a two day trial, plus about one and a half hours of jury deliberation, for him to get convicted of mail fraud and making false statements.

The AP noted that during Kieffer's trial "[a]ttorneys testified that they thought Kieffer was one of their colleagues because he seemed to know about federal court matters and because they saw him at attorney training seminars." Sometimes talking the talk can be enough, but apparently not for his clients.

Some articles from the Denver Post sized up a few of the results of Kieffer's "representation" (or misrepresentation, as it turns out):

The Colorado trial of Allen Andrade for the brutal July 2008 murder of transgender woman Justin "Angie" Zapata begins today, according to CNN. The case received widespread coverage back when it occured, and has become a focal symbol of the transgender community's efforts to be protected within hate crime legislation across the nation.

CNN gave some background for the case, indicating that authorities believe Andrade and Zapata met online via a social networking site when Zapata was 18 years old and Andrade 32. They ended up arranging to meet in person and got intimate, but Andrade later saw photos that made him question Zapata's gender. After a confrontation with Zapata, Andrade ended up beating her with his fists, and then fatally with a fire extinguisher.

As noted in the news story, this case has called attention to the issue of how states treat crimes motivated by an anti-transgender bias. Right now only "11 states and the District of Columbia recognize transgender people in their anti-hate crime laws", and members and supporters of the transgender community would like that number to grow. Andrade himself actually does face a charge of murder plus a "bias-motivated" crime, which may represent a legal first. The legal director for the Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual and Transgender Community Center of Colorado, Mindy Barton told CNN:

Police have identified the victim in Tuesday's murder at Boston's upscale Marriott Copley Place as Julissa Brisman of New York, who was only 26 years old. Brisman was described as an aspiring model and actress, but appears to have been working as a masseuse and advertising her services on the Internet (craigslist to be specific). It was this last part that police believe got her in trouble, when a man some now call the "Craigslist killer" shot Brisman to death in an apparent robbery attempt. Alarmingly, this does not appear to be an isolated incident either, according to the Boston Globe:

"Police said the crime appears linked to the April 10 robbery of the Las Vegas woman at the Westin. That woman, who was bound and gagged and robbed of a debit card, $800 in cash, and $250 in American Express gift cards, had also advertised massage services on Craigslist."

Unfortunately, online advertising is an area rife with opportunities for criminals and unsavory types to target potential victims in scams or worse. Anonymity or false identities are easily established and preserved, and communication is often via e-mail or messaging, which can be harder to track. The bottom line is that people advertising or buying services and goods online need to take great care that they do not unwittingly expose themselves to fraud or violent crimes.

Suspected Grandma Killer Joseph Ettima Caught While Homeless in Mexico

CNN reports that 25-year-old Joseph Elias George Ettima, who is suspected of killing his own grandmother earlier this year, has been arrested in Mexico and returned to Los Angeles, this despite his best efforts to pass as everything from a Nigerian to a native of Belize.

Actually, U.S. Marshal's supervisory deputy Bert Tapia indicated that Ettima was literally homeless at the time he was found, although that could very well have been preferable to his future "housing conditions" considering the nature of the charges he faces. The story noted that Ettima was arrested on Monday and brought back to L.A. on Tuesday night, but authorities first had to figure out who he even was:

"Ettima initially claimed to be from Belize, Tapia said. When authorities were unable to verify that, he then said he was Nigerian. But officials were able to determine he was actually from California, where he was sought in the January 19 death of his 69-year-old grandmother, Emma Hardwick-Street, in the Orange County town of Los Alamitos."

The defense in the kidnapping case of a man who calls himself "Clark Rockefeller" (real name, Christian Karl Gerhartsreiter) is claiming that portions of an interrogation video should not be shown to jurors in his trial. The reason given by the defense? Clark, or Gerhartsreiter, supposedly invoked his right to remain silent, which police proceeded to ignore. These kinds of situations likely provide good fodder for TV cop shows, but they do also pose serious legal issues, as can be seen by looking at the specific details of the Rockefeller case.

The AP summarized the circumstances of the interview, as follows:

Tamara Hofmann Latest Teacher in Sex Scandal, but One With Deadly Consequences

The stories are always headline-grabbers, a teacher and student carrying on an illicit (and, more importantly, possibly illegal) affair. It shouldn't be surprising, after all, it's a betrayal of public trust of the highest order. But today comes a sobering story of one such affair that brought with it a deadly result. The tragic case arose after Arizona high school teacher Tamara Hofmann and her 18-year-old student, Samuel Valdivia, were caught together in bed by her 20-year-old boyfriend Sixto Balbuena.

Balbuena, who also happens to be one of Hofmann's previous students, then stabbed Valdivia to death, although the AP noted he told police he did not intend to do so:

"...he never meant to kill Samuel Valdivia. He allegedly told police 'the blade went in like going into butter' and that he just wanted to show Valdivia how much he hurt him by sleeping with Tamara Hofmann."

On Second Thought ... State to Seek Death Penalty for Murder of Caylee Anthony

In a surprising turn of events, CNN reports that Florida prosecutors have decided to pursue the death penalty against Casey Anthony, who is accused of murdering her young daughter Caylee. The disappearance of Caylee Anthony captivated much of the nation, and police attention quickly focused on Casey Anthony. Caylee's remains were eventually found in a wooded area near her grandparents' home in Orlando, while Casey was in prison.

The move, although certainly within the prosecutor's discretion, does raise questions about the prosecution's strategy and motivation. It could be that, as the prosecution's notice of intent indicated, "additional information that has become available" since the earlier decision not to seek the death peanalty "sufficient aggravating circumstances exist to justify the imposition of the Death Penalty".On the other hand some speculate that maybe it's an attempt to have defense attorney, Jose Baez, disqualified. Baez has not been certified to represent defendants in capital cases. Lastly, perhaps it's simply an expression of frustration by the prosecution with Casey Anthony for refusing a plea deal in the case.

Famous producer and songwriter Phil Spector has been found guilty of second degree murder in the shooting death of 40-year-old actress Lana Clarkson who, as noted by CNN, was "found dead, slumped in a chair in the foyer of Spector's home with a gunshot wound through the roof of her mouth." The decision was reached after about 32 hours of jury deliberations during the course of about nine days. A prior jury had deadlocked 10-2 (favoring conviction) in Spector's previous trial for second degree murder.

Defense attorneys had argued that Clarkson committed suicide because she was "depressed over a recent breakup", and that the prosecution's case was based heavily on circumstancial evidence. Prosecutors, on the other hand, indicated that Clarkson behaved in a manner inconsistent with someone who was suicidal. Further, they depicted Spector as "a gun-toting menace" and, taking it a step further, a "demonic maniac". CNN noted that "[f]ive women took the stand to tell harrowing stories of being threatened with firearms by Spector." Moreover:

In breaking news, CNN reports that two people have been shot and killed at Henry Ford Community College in Michigan. In light of the number of the tragic shootings during the past week and month, the first thing that probably pops into anyone's head is whether this is yet another instance of someone trying to take out as many people as possible before they kill themselves. In the context of school shootings, both the Virginia Tech tragedy and the shooting last month in Germany might pop up in people's minds.

Very few details are released at the moment, but the scene in Michigan is reported to have been contained by police who have not indicated whether anyone is in custody or not. A man and a woman were found dead in a classroom on campus, and the campus does remain in lockdown at this time. The Detroit Free Press now reports that the killing was a murder-suicide.

There have been an unseemly number of mass shootings and murder-suicides in the news lately, ranging from those in Alabama to the tragedies in Binghamton, NY, North Carolina, and California (sadly, this list is not even all-encompassing). Regardless, all of the violence is raising questions about whether such shootings are the product of the recession, or perhaps have begun to feed off each other in a cyclical copy-cat manner, and also whether there's anything that can be done to prevent them.

The AP reported on a police chief in a small Texas town whose actions have now raised questions about how he got his job in the first place. Oakwood Police Chief Oly Ivy was arrested on Monday for allegedly using a taser on his wife (some reports have instead described her as his live-in girlfriend, but that is sort of beside the point). He was charged with aggravated assault with a deadly weapon and got fired the same night.

Laws on Tasers vary from state to state, sometimes at the local level as well, but people should be aware that they are considered deadly weapons in many states. For this reason, individuals who use Tasers without adequate justification risk serious legal consequences, even if they happen to be a police chief like Ivy.

Rookie LA Angels Pitcher Nick Adenhart Killed in Hit-and-Run Car Crash

Promising Los Angeles Angels pitcher Nick Adenhart and two others were killed this morning, just hours after Adenhart pitched in his first start of the season, the L.A. Times reports. For more information on the tragic accident, as well as the penalties on the driver (who reportedly fled from the scene on foot) please visit this post on the Tarnished Twenty blog.

Also, for information on what you should do if you get into an accident, this post on the Injured blog covers the topic in depth.

Bridget Lee Baby Murder Charge Dismissed: Based on Botched Autopsy

A botched autopsy nearly had catastrophic results for Bridget Lee of Alabama, who had been charged in 2006 with murder for suffocating her baby right after it was born. The AP reports that the murder charge against her was dismissed after subsequent autopsies determined that the baby was actually stillborn, and not suffocated.

Suspicions against Bridget Lee were high early on because she decided to hide the stillborn baby in an SUV. But the AP described that she had a different reason for doing so, however, "The small-town mother of two committed adultery, became pregnant and panicked". Further:

"Lee made a huge mistake. Rather than seeking medical attention, she placed the baby's body in a plastic container in the back of her Chevrolet Tahoe and went on with her life. A couple who had been lined up to adopt the child called police after she told them he was stillborn.

Georgia Woman Goes to Court for DUI Case, Gets Jailed for Smell of Alcohol?

28-year-old Lauren Nicole Smith of Milton, Georgia, has discovered the hard way that going to court for your DUI case smelling like alcohol is a really bad idea. Last Friday, when she showed up in court to answer for a charge of DUI, the bailiff caught the smell of alcohol on her person while conducting a routine weapons-check. As a result, she ended up spending time in jail for contempt of court, which was a proceeding separate from the DUI case. The Atlanta-Journal Constitution noted:

"The law says you can't take a plea from somebody who may be intoxicated. After a short conversation with Municipal Court Judge Barry Zimmerman, His Honor issued a bench warrant citing her on the spot for contempt of court. Milton police then took her to the Alpharetta city jail to serve a two-day sentence."

A CNN story published today raises the issue of how teens, sometimes as young as 13 or 14 years old, who commit serious offenses can become "lifers" sentenced to live out the rest of their days in prison.

The case of Quantel Lotts, now 23 years old, was highlighted in the piece and described as follows:

"It began as horseplay, with two teenage stepbrothers chasing each other with blow guns and darts. But it soon escalated when one of the boys grabbed a knife.

The older teen, Michael Barton, 17, was dead by the time he reached the hospital. The younger boy, Quantel Lotts, 14, would eventually become one of Missouri's youngest lifers.

Lotts was sentenced in Missouri's St. Francois County Circuit Court in 2002 to life in prison without parole for first-degree murder in his stepbrother's stabbing death."

The AP reports that Neil Havens Rodreick II, a sex offender who posed as a schoolboy to get into schools got himself some schooling by a judge today, specifically, a sentence of 70 years in prison.

Judge Thomas Lindbergh scolded Rodreick, "I find your conduct appalling -- these were volitional choices you made, consistently deceitful, dishonest, manipulative...I think you represent a danger to the community; you in particular are dangerous to children."

According to the AP, Rodreick actually succeeded in the charade for a couple of years, describing it as follows:

A survey conducted by the Pew Hispanic Center indicates that the public's perception of various aspects of the legal system varies, sometimes widely, by race.

On the bright side for law enforcement, the majority of all races surveyed indicated that they had "a great deal" or "fair amount" of confidence that their communty's police officers would do a "good job enforcing the law". On the other hand, the extent of people's confidence, as well as those feeling they had "just some or very little" confidence in the police, did vary by race. For example:

  • 78% of whites had confidence police would do a good job, while 20% had reservations.
  • Comparatively, 61% of Hispanics had high confidence, and 36% lacked the same.
  • Lastly, only 55% of blacks were confident, and 37% were far less so.
  • Ted Stevens' Corruption Charges Dismissed: Scrutiny Turns to Prosecutors

    CNN and TIME are reporting that U.S. District Judge Emmet Sullivan has ordered the conviction of former Alaska Senator Ted Stevens to be set aside. Now scrutiny is turning to prosecutors in the case, as the judge also ordered an investigation into their conduct. Stevens had been convicted of lying about gifts he received from wealthy friends, but it turns out that the evidence and witnesses in the case were not handled properly, to say the least. He then lost his reelection bid in October in a close fought battle with Democrat Mark Begich.

    Although prosecutors have wide latitude in deciding when and whether to bring charges against an individual, as well as deciding what charges to bring, they still have to abide by rules requiring them to turn over evidence to a defendant's attorneys. This is particularly crucial in circumstances where the evidence at issue appears to be "exculpatory", or tending to prove the innocence, of a defendant.

    In the Stevens case, not only was evidence wrongly withheld but witnesses were also mishandled by the prosecution, apparently to such an extent that Attorney General Eric Holder had no choice but to ask that the case be dismissed, indicating that Stevens did not receive a fair trial.

    Former Black Panther Mumia Abu-Jamal's Appeal Rejected by Supreme Court

    The Supreme Court has refused to hear the case of former Black Panther Mumia Abu-Jamal (aka Wesley Cook) who was convicted and sentenced to death in the 1981 killing of Philadelphia police officer Daniel Faulkner. Via order today, the court declined to take on Abu-Jamal's plea for a new trial in the racially-charged case that, as the AP noted, became a focus for civil rights activists.

    A federal court of appeals had previously invalidated Abu-Jamal's death sentence on the grounds that the jury in the case was not instructed properly. The government has appealed that ruling and today's order does not address the sentence. Below are some links and background in the case.

    Redmond O'Neal, Ryan O'Neal's Son, Arrested for Smuggling Drugs Into Prison

    Redmond O'Neal, the son of actor Ryan O'Neal and actress Farrah Fawcett (sadly also in the news after being hospitalized in relation to her cancer treatment) was arrested over the weekend on charges of bringing narcotics to a jail facility and possessing a controlled substance.

    As described by CNN:

    "The younger O'Neal was stopped during a routine search at a jail security checkpoint and he volunteered that he had drugs in his possession, said Steve Whitmore, a spokesman for the Los Angeles County sheriff's office."

    Today a judge in Rochester, New York convicted recreational softball player Sean Sanders of negligent homicide relating to the death of an opponent. Sanders purportedly punched the other man after the end of a contentious game. Sanders' conviction by a judge, rather than a jury, illustrates the choice between being tried by a jury of your peers or by a judge.

    The incident occurred last June. From all accounts, the softball game was heated. So much so that the umpire called it in the 7th inning, according to WHEC Rochester. In the fight that broke out afterward, Sanders purportedly rushed opponent Dan Andrews and punched him in the back of the head.

    The negligent homicide conviction carries a 4 year maximum sentence, but may be enhanced due to Sanders' prior felonies (which included a conviction for beating a man with a golf club). 

    Though Sanders' attorneys tried to portray the punch as Sanders defending his teammate, Monroe County Court Judge John J. Connell saw it differently. MPNnow of Rochester quotes him as saying that Sanders landed "a full force body blow sucker punch" which witnesses described as "echoing like the crack of a bat."

    In this case, Judge Connell acted as what lawyers call the "finder of facts." Typically, this role is played by jurors. Prosecution and defense attorneys argue their version of what happened, and the jury (or here the judge) decides what will be the court's version of accepted facts. The relevant legal standard is then applied to these facts to determine if the defendant is guilty.

    So, when do you get a bench trial and when is it a trial by jury?

    Cleveland Browns wide receiver Donte Stallworth surrendered this morning in a Miami courtroom on charges of DUI manslaughter. His case illustrates the potential implications, beyond getting a DUI, of driving under the influence. In particular, it highlights the criminal culpability attached when someone dies as a result of a DUI.

    Florida prosecutors charged Stallworth yesterday afternoon. As the Cleveland Plain Dealer reported, early in the morning of March 14th, after honking his horn and flashing his lights, Stallworth allegedly hit and killed 59 year old Mario Reyes with his Bentley while Reyes crossed a Miami Beach street to catch a bus home after his night shift as a crane operator. A blood sample allegedly showed Stallworth to have a blood alcohol level of 0.126, far beyond Florida's 0.08 limit.

    Today, the Plain Dealer reports that Stallworth was booked at the jail before being released on $200,000 bail.

    Florida is one of the many states that has a "per se" drunk driving law, meaning that you are presumed to be driving under the influence if you drive with a blood alcohol level over 0.08. Florida is also one of the many states with statutes that specifically punish DUI offenders who cause someone's death.

    What is the Mann Act and is It Still Used by Law Enforcement?

    Hoping to deal a knockout blow to an historical injustice, the AP reports that John McCain and others are stepping forward seeking a rare posthumous presidential pardon for the country's first black heavyweight boxing champ, Jack Johnson, who was convicted of violating the Mann Act in 1913. But just what is the Mann Act, and why is it still making headlines?

    One NPR article broke down the history of the Mann Act (originally entitled the "White Slave Traffic" Act), noting the Act was "designed to combat forced prostitution." The text of the Mann Act as it was written back in 1910 was very broad, making it a crime for:

    "any person who shall knowingly transport or cause to be transported...any woman or girl for the purpose of prostitution or debauchery, or for any other immoral purpose..."

    Such broad language in the Act allowed a number of high profile prosecutions that critics claim have been politically or racially motivated. NPR noted that "[i]n the past century, thousands of people have been prosecuted under the Mann Act, including celebrities such as Charlie Chaplin, Frank Lloyd Wright, Chuck Berry and Jack Johnson." In the case of Jack Johnson, the "prostitute" which he was transporting from Pittsburgh to Chicago was actually his white girlfriend, but he still ended up getting convicted and sentenced to the maximum 1 year and a day.

    What do you get when you weld a barstool to a metal frame, add some wheels, and top it off with a lawnmower engine? Odds are you probably didn't guess a DUI, but that's exactly what 28-year-old Kile Wygle of Ohio received after he crashed his "vehicle", reported CNN.

    Only its picture does the contraption true justice, but it's true justice that Wygle is looking for now.  He has asked for a jury trial on a charge of driving under the influence. In his own words, "It was just an accident. I mean a little minor accident", and he claims that he was not driving a "vehicle".

    The Columbus Dispatch described one witness's account:

    "From his window, the 66-year-old Konink then saw something buzz down Kelley Lane in Newark.

    'I knew it was something strange, and then it was gone,' he said. 'It was too fast.'

    Newark police say that Konink saw a neighbor riding a motorized bar stool shortly before the man wrecked while trying to make a U-turn."