Monday, June 14, 2010

The Judge Decides

Three recent judicial decisions nullifying--in one case a substantial jury verdict, caught my eye reminding me and appropriately reminding us all of the incredible power of a Judge to determine outcomes.  It should remind us that the person in that job needs to have the wisdom of King Solomon and possess strength and mercy.  Let's see, what would you have done?

In the first case reported by the Missoulian, a Missoula, Montana Judge vacated a plea deal involving a vehicular homicide and alcohol.  This is from Tristan Scott's account:

"Matthew Thomas Chase arrived for the hearing expecting a 10-year suspended sentence to the Department of Corrections for his role in the Aug. 5, 2008 wreck near Turah, which killed 25-year-old Jacob Leroy Bailey of Clinton and left a 21-year-old woman with brain injuries.  Faced with prison time, however, Chase opted to withdraw his guilty plea and proceed to trial.

Fourth Judicial District Judge Ed McLean let it be known at the beginning of the hearing that he intended to fore go the plea agreement and its proposed sentence in favor of a much harsher punishment - 10 years in the Montana State Prison.  McLean said reports that Chase had recently violated the conditions of his pre-trial supervision by consuming alcohol and smoking marijuana was evidence that he was not fit for a sentence of supervision.

'It is the court's intention to sentence Mr. Chase to 10 years in the Montana State Prison. This defendant has displayed that he cannot conduct himself on probation,' McLean said.  Deputy Missoula County Attorney Shawn Thomas said the proposed sentence, which stipulated that Chase successfully complete the Intensive Supervision Program, was crafted to provide an increased level of supervision. If he violated the conditions, he would very likely face prison.

McLean again balked at the probationary sentence, saying he would agree to a 10-year prison term with five years suspended, but no less."
Sounds right to me.  The Montana Standard and the Missoulian report incessantly on these wild drunk driving cases and repeat drunk driving stories.  In this case you have a guy looking at serious jail time for an alcohol-related offense and while in a presentence phase he feels it's appropriate to drink and smoke dope?   Smart judge, doing the right thing!

The second case relates to the dismissal of murder charges against a Huntington, West Virginia woman who killed her daughter's abusive boyfriend.  Judge Dan O'Hanlon dismissed charges against Teresa Baker (pic)because the prosecutor had misinformed the Grand Jury on the status of the law, Bill Rosenberger at the Herald-Dispatch reports:

"An indictment charging a Huntington woman with murdering her daughter's abusive boyfriend was dismissed Friday after a judge ruled that Cabell County's prosecutor gave a grand jury an inappropriate definition of self defense.

The prosecutor, Chris Chiles, said Friday evening that he hadn't seen the order granting the motion to dismiss the case against Teresa Lynn Baker, who shot and killed Jeffrey Sadler, 25, at 156 Cedar Street on Feb. 4, 2008. She shot Sadler more than an hour after she had called 911 to report a physical domestic dispute between her daughter and Sadler. She was told officers were on their way.

According to 911 recordings, Baker was told during a second call that there were no units available to respond. The third 911 call about the incident came from a neighbor who heard gunshots and screaming coming from the Cedar Street residence. The fourth call was from Baker, who frantically said, 'I just killed him ... I just shot Jeff Sadler.'

Chiles has the option of presenting the case again to a grand jury, and he said Friday he will. Chiles had sought a first-degree murder charge against Baker, who has cited self-defense against the man who abused her daughter in front of her grandchildren the night of the incident. According to the court documents released Friday, signed by Circuit Court Judge Dan O'Hanlon, Chiles was shown to have the authorization from Judge Alfred Ferguson to instruct the grand jury on the law involved. But he did not cite the most recent case and opinion written by the West Virginia Supreme Court of Appeals in 2009.
In this case it sounds like the Judge is acting as an appropriate check on a grandstanding Prosecutor. 

Remember as I said when I launched this blawg, we receive these stories through the prism of news reports which often do not do justice to the underlying story and sometimes blatantly misread what the court did and why, but with that caveat, this story from the Hartford Courant may take the cake.  Judge Barry Stevens of the Superior Court remitted an $18 million dollar verdict against the state of Connecticut, reducing the jury's verdict to $1.83 million dollars.  Here's the story in excerpt:

"A Superior Court judge Friday slashed an $18 million verdict against the state to $1.83 million, saying that the jury had made a mistake in awarding the money to an East Hartford computer company that supplied equipment to the state.

The initial verdict in January had shocked Attorney General Richard Blumenthal's office and legal experts and brought criticism to Blumenthal for trying the case against Gina Malapanis, the former owner of Computers Plus Center Inc. The jury in Waterbury ruled that the state, in particular the Department of Information Technology, had deliberately destroyed her business.

Judge Barry Stevens ruled late Friday that the verdict was too high, calling it a 'shocking injustice.'  'The court concludes that a finding that DOIT's conduct caused a total loss of the market value of CPC's business manifests a shocking injustice indicating that the jury's award of damages was influenced by partiality or mistake,'' Stevens wrote in a 31-page ruling.

Stevens said that although the court should not act as a 'seventh' juror, it does have an obligation to determine if the evidence supports the verdict.  'The fact that the jury returned a verdict in excess of what the trial judge would have awarded does not alone establish that the verdict was excessive,'' Stevens said.

But Stevens ruled, agreeing with Blumenthal's argument, that the verdict was excessive.

Stevens' ruling came after Blumenthal's office filed motions to overthrow the verdict or, at the least, reduce it. Stevens declined to reverse the verdict, rejecting the state's arguments.

Blumenthal [pic, who is running for the US Senate and who famously and falsely claims to be a Viet Nam combat veteran] released a statement late Friday saying that his office will continue to try to get the verdict reduced further.  'I am pleased that the court rightly reduced this award, saving taxpayers millions of dollars,' Blumenthal said. 'We will continue fighting to overturn this verdict and cut the award to nothing.'

Computers Plus had already sold the state thousands of machines when, in 2003, Gregg "Rock" Regan, then head of the state Department of Information Technology, said the company sold the state 44 computers that did not work  [Problems were sad to exist with computer hardware sold to the state.]

At that point, Blumenthal filed the civil lawsuit and state police began investigating the company.

Police arrested Malapanis, of Hebron, in June 2004 and charged her with first-degree larceny on charges that she bilked the state of more than $300,000. On the day of Malapanis' arrest, Blumenthal said: 'My office will continue to vigorously pursue our lawsuit against Computers Plus Center and its owner to recover money that the state alleges was wrongfully charged. I remain determined to win a full and fair recovery' of taxpayer money.

But the criminal charges were later dropped, and Malapanis filed a counter suit against Regan and the state, claiming that the state had denied her civil rights and ruined her business. The case wound through the court system for six years before finally going to a jury trial late last year. The jury issued its verdict on Jan. 23, 2010, and Blumenthal vowed to appeal quickly."
This one causes me real heartache for Ms. Malapis.  This poor woman spent six years defending herself against what appears to have been a malicious prosecution by a politically ambitious state attorney general.  I'm always dubious when you hear a Judge say they are not supplanting a jury's considered view when the Judge proceeds to supplant a Jury's verdict with his own which is what Judge Stevens did by reducing the Jury's verdict by 89%. 

So Judge Stevens what is the value of the life's work of a business woman who was subjected to the indignity of a public arrest, disgrace and ruin over 6 years?   Assuming her lawyers will be paid for defending her for 6 years from the proceeds of the recovery--what does Mrs. Malapis receive in exchange for her business?  There is also the uncomfortable question of a Judge paid by the State of Connecticut taking a verdict against the State of Connecticut awarded by impartial jurors on a counterclaim.   Maybe this was the right decision, but it doesn't sound all that obviously like a just decision.  Then again we are second guessing a Judge who is second guessing a jury.  Judge Stevens had the benefit of being there, and we are second guessing courtesy of a news report. 

Here you had the example of three intelligent Judges grappling with the nitty gritty decisions of right and wrong.  You can also see, feel and hear the public and political pressures of doing the right thing.  When the Judge does the right thing we are all ennobled, even if we don't automatically understand or appreciate the decision. 


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  2. If I was on that Hartfoerd jury, I'd be pissed.