Friday, November 8, 2013

Courting Trouble

Yesterday morning on CBS This Morning, there was a story about a young man in Missouri (the "Show Me" state) who was convicted of homicide on the words of people who didn't know much more about the case than you or I did, and we were all many miles away.  So maybe Missouri should start calling themselves the "Blame Me" state.

But the good news is, the janitor who was pretty sure he saw a guy who was also wearing a shirt at or close to the crime scene and it was probably the same night, so put him in jail for twelve years already, recanted his obtuse testimony and reckoned that he was wrong.  The poor accused man must have had one poor lawyer, if he got sent up with flimsy evidence like that.

I have to share this story from my shadowy past.  In one of my many positions with the County, it was my task to be Custodian of Records for 911.  As you might figure, everything that happens on the phones and the police and fire radio system is recorded, and attorneys for both the prosecution and defense sides often use those recordings as evidence in trials. This meant I spent a lot of time in courtrooms over the years I did that job.  I mean, if you are trying someone for murder and his name is Seamus Ellingboe, and you can come to trial with a tape of the victim's last words on the phone to 911, saying "Seamus Ellingboe just broke in through my kitchen window and he is about to shoot me" and then you hear gunshots on the tape, you can pretty much count on getting your case wrapped up by lunchtime.

So it was one morning as I sat in a hard wooden pew at the old Towson District Court, awaiting my turn to testify in a case I can't even remember.  I sat there, shifting every so often so as to avoid Numb Butt Syndrome, and waited and waited.  One of the early cases that day concerned a man who claimed to be driving his car up I-95 at 3 AM one day, only to be driven off the road by a road-raged 18-wheeler driver.  The State Police got in on it, because after the car driver got back on the highway, he went to a rest area (pre-cell phone days!) and called them, and with the description he gave them, they later made an arrest, and the case went forward.

Remember being 1/2 asleep in Math class and suddenly from deep in your cortex being aware that the teacher just called on you to solve the square root of 144?  I had that dim awareness that morning.  I heard the guy giving his impassioned testimony, and then the Ass't State's Atty. said, "Do you see that man, the man who was driving that truck and forced you off the highway at great speed, placing you in grave danger, in this courtroom today?"

The proverbial hush fell over the courtroom as the man replied, "Yes!  He's right there!"

And he pointed

The ASA looked crestfallen, as his case fell apart in front of his sad eyes.

The judge said, "Let the record show that the plaintiff has indicated that Mr Clark from 911 was driving the 18-wheeler. Mr Clark, are you willing to answer whether you were driving a large truck on I-95 at 3 AM on April 16 of this year?"

I firmly stated that I was not.

Then the guy goes, "Oh wait, it was THAT man!"  And he pointed to some other citizen sunning himself among the throng.

The judge pounded on his gavel to quell the excited titter that ran through the courtroom.  "You only get one guess, sir," he pointed out as the ASA packed up his briefcase and I, wide awake now, accepted congratulations from my buddies and dreamed of the retirement that I now so happily enjoy...

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