Monday, September 07, 2009

Cartoon of the Day

Signe Cartoons, Philadelphia Daily News

Presumed Guilty

On several occasions, I found myself putting down my book -- The Innocent Man by John Grisham -- and shaking my head, declaring that the story was just too outlandish. Who would ever believe such a ridiculous tale, I mumbled? If this had been a novel, it certainly would have been panned for being unbelievable.

Yet the miscarriage of justice not only happened, it was compounded over and over during the course of the history of this case that spanned almost a dozen years.

The Innocent Man is Grisham's version of Truman Capote's In Cold Blood. As noted in the Washington Post review:

Many wild and crazy things take place in the 15 novels John Grisham has published about the law and those who play fast and loose with it, but, as he says, "not in my most creative moment could I conjure up a story as rich and as layered" as the one he tells in The Innocent Man. It is nonfiction, a detailed examination of the story of Ronald Keith Williamson, who was wrongfully convicted of a murder in 1988 and who was saved from death by lethal injection only through the intervention of men and women who believed in his innocence and were able to obtain the DNA report that cleared him.
I decided to read Grisham's book after following the Troy Davis case, the Georgia man whose conviction for killing a policemen has been called into question. See Death is Final. In fact, the Supreme Court recently took the unusual step of ordering a hearing into Davis' Claims of Innocence.

Like me, Hilde of wrongful-convictions just finished the book and our opinion of the book is similar:
The book tells the story of Ron Williamson of tiny Ada, Oklahoma. A washed-up minor league baseball player with delusions of grandeur, Williamson was a somewhat unpleasant character who is eventually convicted of murder and sentenced to death because of shoddy police work, tunnel vision, lackluster defense counsel, forensic fraud, and the abject failure of the court to ensure a fair trail. The book could read as a Cliff’s Notes guide to wrongful convictions if it could be boiled down to 10 pages, but that would do it an injustice.

The book’s reputation proceeds it, and it lives up to every word of the praise that has been heaped on it since it was published three years ago. “Meticulously researched,” is a common refrain among reviewers, and they’re dead on. I found it hard to believe, at times, that Grisham was intricately describing reality – dozens of interviews, thousands of pages of documents – rather than crafting a world of his own: his creation is so complete as to be completely engulfing.
Death penalty proponents argue that the system is fair and prevents an innocent person being put to death. However, cases like Williamson's make a mockery of those claims. Another case was detailed in the current issue of the New Yorker, where it is likely that the man put to death for a fire that killed his children was not arson, as had been claimed by the "experts" who testified at trial. See Cameron Todd Willingham, Texas, and the death penalty.

Unfortunately, despite the so-called presumption of innocence in a criminal case, many of those involved in the criminal justice system do not share that belief. Too often, "gut feelings" and biases are involved in the process. The arrogant and dogmatic personality of many prosecutors and officers does not allow them to deviate from the course they are following once they have focused on a suspect, despite indications to the contrary. Naturally, this generalization does not apply across the spectrum, but it happens often enough to be a serious problem -- especially when liberty and life is at stake. As Hilde observes:
And so continues the portrait of America’s criminal justice system that Grisham paints: full of unintentional yet overwhelming absurdity, laced with vengeance, spite, dehumanization, and utterly confusing and overwhelming for whomever should become ensnarled in the maelstrom.
Except for the cruel & hard-hearted, such as some of the very characters that were involved in the prosecution of the case highlighted in the book, this true story of a wrongful conviction in a small town in Oklahoma should be used to establish that the death penalty is too risky for a civilized nation to use. Last I checked, the US is still on the list of civilized countries.

Nineteenth on Grisham’s list of publications, the book aligns with Grisham’s well-known theme of legal drama but takes one major detour from his past work: it is nonfiction. The project forced Grisham to take a hard look at a troubled system in which the consequences of a lost court case are all too real.

“Even if you support the death penalty, you cannot support the death penalty system as it stands in the U.S.,” Grisham said. “My one hope is that people realize this system we have is simply too unfair to continue.”

From a summary of the book at speech at University of Virginia School of Law, Author John Grisham Finds Troubled Story Behind “Innocent Man”.

As Jonathan Yardley said in his Washington Post piece:
The bizarre twists and turns of this case are exceeded only by the calculated efforts by law-enforcement officers to warp and abuse the law to their own ends. Perhaps it really was the passionate conviction of the cops and the prosecutor that Williamson and Fritz murdered Debbie Carter, but what they did to win their convictions made a mockery of justice. They ignored clear evidence of Williamson's mental incompetence, they suppressed a tape recording that probably would have cleared Williamson, they sought out and employed snitches. The convictions they got were wrongful in the moral as well as the legal sense of the word, but, as Grisham says, "until the system is fixed, it could happen to anyone."
For more on Dennis Fritz, who was wrongfully convicted with Ron Williamson, see Barbara's Journey Toward Justice.

Saturday, September 05, 2009

The Persistent Pant-a-Loon Pearson

If at first you don't succeed, try, try again. Of course, this maxim wasn't necessarily meant to apply as a litigation strategy, but apparently Roy Pearson didn't quite make the connection.

Pearson was an ALJ in DC, who first sued his dry cleaners over a lost pair of pants, then sued over the job he lost because he sued over the pair of pants. I've followed his saga for some time, gleefully chronicling his tale of legal woes. See Never Can Say Goodbye.

As Lowering the Bar explains the latest loss, in Judge Who Lost Pants Loses Another Suit:

It seems that our old friend Roy L. Pearson, Jr., he of the $65 million pants, has recovered sufficiently from losing that case to get on with losing another one. This one was a wrongful-termination lawsuit against the District of Columbia, his former boss (Chief Administrative Law Judge Tyrone Butler), and other alleged miscreants.
As the Boston Globe reports, Judge who sued over lost pants loses bid to keep job:
A federal judge has thrown out a lawsuit brought by Roy L. Pearson Jr., the former District of Columbia judge whose previous $54 million lawsuit against a dry-cleaning business generated international headlines.

Pearson filed the later suit in May 2008, alleging that the District of Columbia government broke the law in refusing to reappoint him to a 10-year term as an administrative law judge. The decision came after news reports about Pearson’s lawsuit against Custom Cleaners, which he said had misplaced a pair of his pants.

The district’s Commission on Selection and Tenure of Administrative Law Judges cited Pearson’s temperament and prudence on the bench in not giving him the job.

Once again, Pearson was left holding his pants. The Court rejected his retaliation claim:

In a 37-page opinion issued last Thursday, US District Judge Ellen S. Huvelle rejected all of Pearson’s arguments. She called Pearson’s lawsuit against Custom Cleaners a “personal vendetta.’’
No wrongful termination here, said the Judge, The Pants Lawsuit: Still Not Over:
But the federal court was not buying it. Retaliation claims are only viable where an employee has been disciplined or fired for so-called "protected speech." To succeed in his case, Pearson would have to show that his speech (the pants lawsuit) involved a matter of public concern. The fact that he sued in part to compel enforcement of D.C.'s consumer-protection laws (going so far as to characterize himself as a "private attorney general" for doing so) did not impress the judge.
Looks like we won't have Pearson around to mock for much longer. But there's always someone new to fill the spot.

Speaking of lawyers behaving badly, a receptionist has sued her former law firm -- an employment law firm -- claiming that they wouldn't let her take a potty break. Her revenge: she wants to relieve the firm of some money for not letting her relieve herself. Claiming that she was fired for complaining about the lack of breaks, she's asking for $1.59M in damages, no less.

As the Washington Business Journal reports, Former receptionist sues Littler Mendelson over bathroom breaks:

Enter Rebecca Landrith, the now-former receptionist in the McLean office of employment law giant Littler Mendelson PC.

According to the July 27 lawsuit the receptionist filed — with no help from a lawyer — Littler provided no substitute receptionist, and “had no consistent policy or procedure as to when or how Landrith could take a restroom break.”

Need we go on? Oh, if we must. “Impromptu requests” for cover by employees — like attorneys — elicited mostly resentment and condescension, she alleges.

On two separate occasions, Landrith claims, she had to “wet her pants” at the desk because nobody would, well, relieve her.

The incidents caused Landrith depression, stress, anxiety and helplessness — ergo, her claim for $1.59 million for intentional infliction of emotional distress.

I think the best comment about the case came from Above the Law:
Littler is one of the leading employment law defense firms in the country. It's really not surprising that a firm well-known for 'defend[ing] many of the world's leading corporations' told this lady to leave before she dripped anything on the stationery.
I think this one may be known as the case of the Potty Potty.

Thursday, September 03, 2009

As the World Turns

Once again, my continual refrain that Scranton is the center of the universe proves true.

As I noted before, during the recent Presidential election, almost all of the candidates visited the Electric City or touted their ties to Scranton, from Hillary Clinton to Joe Biden. Even Obama enlisted hometown boy, Senator Bob Casey, to his side early in the campaign and made several stops there with Casey by his side.

Now that the election has receded, Scranton has still managed to stay in the news for one thing or another. The latest newsworthy item is former Bishop Joseph Martino, who recently resigned after an 8 year reign of terror in the town, as I noted the other day. See Exit, Stage Right.

One of the LLWL gang returned today from a Cape Cod vacation and mentioned that she heard the news of Martino's giving up his throne while she was at the Cape. The news traveled far and wide.

Likewise, Time Magazine has also featured the story of Martino's sudden departure from the diocese of Scranton in its latest issue. They have an interesting take on what caused Martino to suddenly step down, Bishop Martino: Too Outspoken on Abortion for Vatican?:

For suddenly departing politicians and CEOs, the standard line is to "spend time with family." Now the Catholic Church may have its own version of this unconvincing, stock answer. On Aug. 31, Joseph Martino, the controversial bishop from Scranton, Pa., stunned longtime church watchers by announcing that he was resigning his post because of problems with insomnia and fatigue.

The Catholic leader, who has gained national prominence for his outspoken pro-life advocacy and aggressive criticism of pro-choice Democratic politicians, is still more than a decade away from reaching the church's automatic retirement age of 75. Martino's abrupt resignation, along with the fact that he was not reassigned to another position within the church, has some church insiders suggesting that the highly unusual move was far from voluntary — and quite possibly the work of a Vatican that has been decidedly less openly critical of the Obama Administration.

Whether Martino is leaving willingly or not, his departure means that one very vocal critic of the Administration has lost his bully pulpit.
Time suggests that Martino's constant castigation of pro-life Scrantonian Senator Casey may have been the deciding factor in the Vatican ditching Martino, particularly since the jabs were related to Casey's support of President Obama. As the piece observes:
Building bridges has also been the public posture of the Vatican when it comes to the Obama Administration. The Vatican remained silent on Notre Dame's decision to invite Obama to speak. And although Pope Benedict XVI expressed his disappointment with Obama's support for abortion rights when the two met in July, a Vatican spokesman went out of his way to state that the Holy Father was "very impressed" by the Democratic President.
With the substantial shortage of priests in the Church these days, it has to be pretty extreme for the Vatican to permit a priest to step aside for other than a very good reason. Of course, I'm glad he's gone, whatever the reason. Friends & family have long reported that the Bishop was deeply dividing the membership within the diocese. At least now the parishioners in Scranton can now begin the healing process.

Cartoon of the Day

David Fitzsimmons, Arizona Daily Star

Wednesday, September 02, 2009

Quote of the Day

It doesn't surprise me that a recent poll . . . showed that the majority of Americans are confused when it comes to what's actually in health care reform legislation. Who can blame them? The mainstream media is spending their time glorifying political he said she said and shining a spotlight on the organized efforts by a lobbyist firm to disrupt townhalls. Maybe if they'd educate the public about what is actually in health care reform legislation the poll would yield different results. That said, I do believe most Americans would agree on one thing, our health care system does not work well unless you're rich AND healthy until the day you die.

From Sardine at Eschaton