Woman acts crazy to avoid jury duty

Remember the time on “30 Rock” when Tina Fey’s character, Liz Lemon, got out of jury duty by dressing up as Princess Leia and pretending she actually thought she was the Star Wars character?

“I really don’t think it’s fair for me to be on a jury since I’m a hologram,” Lemon, in full Leia garb, told the judge on the show.

A Denver woman tried to pull off a similar ploy in real life, except instead of a side-buns hairstyle and intergalactic white dress she donned mismatched reindeer socks, smeared make-up and hair curlers, The Denver Post reports.

Susan Cole, a published author and cosmetologist, spoke in “disjointed” speech to Denver District Court Judge Anne Mansfield during jury selection in June last year.

“I broke out of domestic violence in the military,” Cole told the judge. “And I have a lot of repercussions. One is post-traumatic stress disorder” she told the judge.”

Cole avoided jury duty, but the story didn’t end there. Cole called into a radio program that was talking to listeners about how they avoided jury duty. Cole described her outfit and behavior to the hosts and Mansfield heard it all.

Cole tried to tell Fox31 in Denver that her story to the judge that day was true, but her effort was in vain. After investigators looked into the matter, the Denver District Attorney’s Office charged Cole with perjury and attempting to influence a public servant.

Now, it’s possible Cole could be headed to jail in the not too far, far away future.

Kratovil applies for Queen Anne’s judgeship

Former U.S. Rep. Frank M. Kratovil Jr. and David W. “Chip” Gregory, who battled each other in a race for Queen Anne’s County state’s attorney in 2002, are once again competing for the same job.

Gregory and Kratovil, who won that election fight, have both applied for a judgeship in Queen Anne’s County District Court. They and three other candidates will be interviewed by a 13-member trial court judicial nominating commission. The panel will winnow the list of candidates and submit its nominees to Gov. Martin O’Malley on Dec. 6.

O’Malley, if he keeps to his past practice, will appoint the next judge from that list.

Gregory, a Democrat,  was the four-term incumbent Democratic state’s attorney when Kratovil defeated him in the party’s primary in 2002.

Gregory went into private practice with Downes & Gregory in Centreville.

Kratovil won the general election and served six years as state’s attorney. He left the post for Capitol Hill after defeating Republican Andy Harris in 2008 for an open seat in the U.S. House of Representatives.

But Harris gained a measure of revenge last November by beating Kratovil in his re-election bid to represent Maryland’s 1st Congressional District. Since leaving Congress in January, Kratovil has served as assistant deputy state’s attorney in Prince George’s County.

In addition to Kratovil and Gregory, the candidates for the district court judgeship are Queen Anne’s County State’s Attorney Lance G. Richardson and lawyers Patrick J. Palmer and Sandra Lynn Reno.

Animal cruelty sentencing postponed

The sentencing of a Baltimore County lawyer and his wife on animal cruelty charges, set for Tuesday, has been postponed.

Hilton and Donna Silver were found guilty in April in circuit court of neglecting one of their horses, which was in such poor condition it had to be euthanized on the spot. The Silvers face a maximum of 90 days in jail. The April trial was an appeal of a guilty verdict the couple received in district court last August.

A new sentencing date has not been scheduled.

A call to Hilton Silver’s lawyer Tuesday afternoon was not returned. Court records indicate David A. Greenbaum filed a motion for a new trial in May. Prosecutor Adam Lippe said in an e-mail he did not ask for the postponement.

One reason for the delay might be that the judge, Thomas J. Bollinger, is in the midst of the Mary Koontz murder trial. I’ve seen judges delay the day’s testimony in a civil matter to handle a criminal issue, but I would imagine it’s a little more difficult to interrupt a murder trial for a hearing that could take a few hours.

Judge Russell speaks

Baltimore County District Court Judge G. Darrell Russell Jr. broke his silence about his controversial decision to marry a man accused of domestic violence and his alleged victim the day of the accused’s trial.

Russell e-mailed and spoke with The Baltimore Sun’s Dan Rodricks, who in a column Sunday described a condition he called “judicial glaze” that can affect district court judges who hear a variation on the same case over and over again.

You can read Russell’s comments here. Russell said he never read the statement of probable cause in the case in order to remain unbiased, “so I had no idea of the nature of the offense until I heard it on TV.”

There were two other passages from Russell’s comments I found interesting. First, on the defense request to postpone the trial so the couple could obtain a marriage license:

I had two options. Grant the postponement whereby they would be wed and later she would not testify, or deny the postponement and the public defender would pray a jury trial, thus giving the defendant a three week postponement and plenty of time to marry. What I did was a third option which cut to the chase. I expedited the inevitable. It’s a mentality engendered by big dockets in Essex and the necessity of moving cases.

Second, on what happened when the couple came back with a marriage license that afternoon after having the standard, 48-hour waiting period waived:

I felt I owed it to them to at least talk to them. I took them back in my chambers and questioned them thoroughly before deciding that they were indeed sincere, and why not legitimize their relationship and their children? It was perhaps my Catholic conscience. This was not a woman in any way in fear for her safety. In the courtroom her body language said that she wasn’t going to be a good witness. She wouldn’t stand next to the state’s attorney but rather clung to the defendant. Incidentally, she has since called to thank me.

Russell concluded that he should have let someone else marry them in retrospect and literally offered a “Mea Culpa” for making an “error of judgment out of good intentions.”


The mindsets of domestic violence victims

Maybe I’m naive, but two questions gnawed at me as I began reporting my story in Friday’s paper about the District Court judge who married a man suspected of domestic violence to his alleged victim on the day of trial:

1) Why would a victim agree to marry her alleged abuser?

2) Why would she not testify against him?

Prosecutor Stephen Roscher, who heads the family violence division in the Baltimore County State’s Attorney’s Office, summed it up.

“The internal dynamic when we deal with domestic violence victims is completely different than any other crime,” he said.

He and Dorothy Lennig, director of the House of Ruth‘s legal clinic, cited a number of potential contributing factors. Their list is similar to the one offered by the National Center for Victims of Crime.

“Domestic violence is about power and control,” Lennig said.

Knowing that, Roscher has worked with county police on domestic violence case protocol for more than a decade and regularly talks to new recruits about the topic. The strategy, which has been adopted across the country, is to “assume the victim is not going to be cooperative at the time of the trial,” Roscher said.

That’s why police thoroughly document a suspected domestic violence crime scene and get a statement and photos of the victim. That’s why 911 calls are analyzed for “excited utterances” (which can be admitted in court, even though they’re hearsay) and for anything out of the ordinary, Roscher said.

All of this allows Roscher to prosecute a case even without the victim taking the witness stand. It can be challenging, he said, but it’s never impossible.

“There’s never been a murder case where the victim has testified,” Roscher said.

30 seek Baltimore County District Court vacancy

Yup, you read correctly. 30 people are seeking to fill the seat of Judge Edward P. Murphy, who retired Feb. 28. Applications were due yesterday afternoon to the Administrative Office of the  Courts.

By contrast, 22 people applied for a Circuit Court vacancy in 2008.

The District Court vacancy appears to be the first since November 2005, when Judge Philip Tirabassi was appointed to the bench.

Among the applicants are several senior prosecutors and public defenders, as well as an Orphans’ Court judge. The Judicial Nominating Commission for Baltimore County will meet in May and submit a list of nominees to Gov. Martin O’Malley, who will pick one.

A District Court judge’s annual salary is $127,252.

Monday law blog round-up

Happy Monday! Here are some law links to start your day:

  • Did you know it’s legal to marry your first cousin in Maryland? Legislators, including the powerful head of the House Judiciary Committee, want to change that.
  • The ever-fiery Page Croyder says district court judges are handsomely compensated for doing not much work. Anyone want to respond to her allegations?
  • It was really tough to get a job as an associate at a top law firm in 2009, even if you were graduating from an excellent law school.
  • It’s four years to the day since Clarence Thomas’ last question at oral arguments. A new paper argues that his silence hurts the court and his own reputation.
  • Last Wednesday, an Iowa prosecutor returned from a lunch break in a murder trial with ash on his forehead. The defense attorney objected, saying it might sway the jury, the judge agreed, and the prosecutor wiped it off. Thoughts?
  • The lady who crusaded against dog poop on the streets of New York, leading the city to enact a pooper-scooper law, has died at age 99. Sounds like she was a real pistol.

Verdict: I’m not guilty

So I was acquitted this morning.

Back in November, I got pulled over and cited for “failure to maintain and fasten vehicle registration plate in visible position,” a violation of Transportation Article 13-411. No, I wasn’t driving without a license plate. Rather, my plate had a thick clear plastic cover on it, which the officer told me was illegal in Maryland. We’d bought the cover years ago in Pennsylvania after idiots/thieves/take your pick twice (!) tore off half our plate.

Anyway, I looked up the definition of a registration plate cover under Maryland law, and here’s what I found:

(a) In this section, “registration plate cover” means any tinted, colored, painted, marked, clear, or illuminated object that is designed to:

(1) Cover any of the characters of a vehicle’s registration plate; or

(2) Distort a recorded image of any of the characters of a vehicle’s registration plate recorded by a traffic control signal monitoring article…

This morning, I headed to district court to fight the ticket. It was only a $60 fine, and going to court was an inconvenience, but I was convinced that the ticket was a mistake.

I waited my turn as dozens of other alleged traffic offenders came before the judge, mostly to plead guilty or guilty with an explanation. (Note to the dude who was clocked going 109: I’m thinking there’s no really good explanation for that one.) When my turn came, I pleaded not guilty and then waited until the end of the docket for my trial.

The officer told the judge that my car had a dark, tinted plate cover on it and that he had stopped me and written a citation. I countered that the cover was clear. I told the judge that the intent of the statute seemed to be to prohibit covers that would prevent someone from reading the plate, but that the officer had clearly had no problem reading mine, and those that would interfere with something like a red light camera. Mine doesn’t, as evidenced by the EZ-Pass violation notice I brought to show the judge. If EZ-Pass could read the plate well enough to send us a notice, surely a red light camera could, too. I explained why we had bought the cover; it wasn’t to obscure our plate, but to thwart thieves. We’d bought it in Pennsylvania, not here in Maryland, where the sale of such items is banned. Finally, I mentioned that in the years since we’ve lived in Maryland, no one who’s serviced our car has ever brought up the license plate cover law.

Well, I was either really annoying or really convincing, because the judge agreed with me. My first (and only, I hope) encounter with the traffic court system ended in a not guilty verdict.

I have nothing but praise for the judge, and not just because she did what I requested. As I sat there this morning, I heard my fellow defendants make every kind of excuse for their driving infractions. The judge must hear such things day after day, and it has to get old, yet she treated everyone who came before her with respect, even when condemning their driving behavior. I might not be so patient.

Oh, and the offending license plate cover? I unscrewed the thing and took it off the day after my ticket. I may have been in the right, but who needs the hassle? If anyone tears my plate in half again, though, all bets are off.

County’s money battle revived

Baltimore County has been given another chance to answer a $13,000 question.

A White Marsh couple’s lawsuit seeking to recover money seized by police in a drug raid is headed back to district court to determine if the county should be afforded a new trial.

The county’s request previously had been denied, leading to a circuit court appeal heard in October.

Judge Lawrence R. Daniels, in a mid-December ruling docketed earlier this month, remanded the new trial question because the denial was issued as a chambers ruling.

“[W]ithout knowledge of the reasons for the trial court’s decision, we cannot say, with certainty, that the trial court ‘fairly’ exercised its discretion,” Daniels wrote, referring to guidelines for granting a new trial motion set out in a 1988 Court of Special Appeals case.

The case will be heard Feb. 23 in Baltimore County District Court in Catonsville, according to court records.

Police raided the home of Rogelio and Rosario Simon in February 2006 using a warrant and found 67 guns and small amounts of marijuana, methamphetamine and prescription medication in addition to the money. But only a few guns and the drugs were connected to Marlon Simon, the couple’s grown son and the one under investigation on federal drug charges.

Rogelio and Rosario Simon sued the county in November 2007, seeking to recover his guns and her money. The county claims it no longer has the firearms or the money, having turned everything over to the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives. But no one from the county appeared at the January 2008 district court trial in the case, leading to a $13,063 default judgment for Rosario Simon. Vinson said during the circuit court hearing that an error in the county’s mail system led to the district court absence.

Daniels, during the October hearing, took the county to task for failing to appear in district court. In his ruling, the judge also notes the county only hinted at its legal arguments with a boilerplate, “bald assertion” in its motion for a new trial.

But Daniels ultimately decided the county could have mounted a “meritorious defense” in district court to the Simons’ lawsuit and was therefore denied a “substantial right” by the lower court’s ruling.

“[T]he most fundamental right of a party against whom suit has been brought is the right to present a meritorious defense,” Daniels wrote.

The firearm lawsuit was dismissed when MacVaugh learned the county no longer had Rogelio Simon’s antique and modern weapons, which were returned to Simon in the fall.

Another vote to end popular election of judges

On the heels of Attorney General Doug Gansler’s call to end the popular election of circuit court judges comes an article in the latest University of Baltimore Law Forum with some additional recommendations on how to reform the system.

Retired Judge Dana M. Levitz and Baltimore County prosecutor Ephraim R. Siff (Levitz’s former law clerk) echo Gansler’s call to end judicial elections as we know them. Levitz and Siff say circuit court judges now live a “schizophrenic existence,” apolitical until they are required to “transform into consummate politicians and successful fundraisers” to win an election.

Judges with only a limited time on the bench before having to campaign are particularly hampered by the current system, Levitz and Siff write.

“It can be argued that the first few years of experience are most important to the judge’s evolution from advocate to arbiter,” they write.  “Instead of studying the new areas of the law with which they must become familiar, a new appointee is out most nights and weekends shaking hands and kissing babies at political clubs, community association meetings, bull roasts, charity events, or anywhere groups of people assemble.”

Short of abolishing the elections, the authors recommend eliminating contested re-elections, as Gansler has suggested. Levitz and Siff also propose requiring challengers to choose the particular judge they wish to run against, and requiring district court judges to resign from the bench prior to running for a circuit court seat.

“The one recommendation that is paramount is that Maryland do away with this antiquated system of choosing circuit court judges in contested elections, where the most adept fundraiser and politician is elected to sit in judgment and is authorized to dispense justice,” they conclude.