The Scary Arson Trial Addendum

Sometimes I think everyone of you out there went to law school we have so many of them in this country.  We have more lawyers per capita than any place else on earth.   Either we didn’t heed Shakespeare’s advice very well or we just love telling stories and like a captive audience in the courtroom.  Like I saw we had about 1 lawyer for every 235 folks.  In England for example it is closer to one in a thousand per capita.   So for those few who didn’t attend law school I thought you might enjoy a little taste of the hidden stories that sometimes occur after the headlines have faded from the front page. After those sensational criminal trials there is often more to the tale and future actions that revive those old memories and terrors of the original crime.   

When I was a young lawyer I was a jack of all trades lawyer.  If you needed a lawyer I was your guy whether it was a criminal matter, divorce or corporate formation.   That was not unusual at that time.  There weren’t all that many lawyers who specialized in areas of the law.   There were specialist in patents, tax, criminal and securities law but that was really about it.  There were a few in handled plaintiff’s cases for personal injuries but not all that many then.  We all would have a niche but lots of lawyers were generalists, that would do it all–the paperwork practice like drafting wills and trust and also do trial work for disputes.   Some of the finest and best lawyers I ever knew fell into these category.  It has a proud tradition, Lincoln, Jefferson, Burr, and Adams were in these category to name only a few.

So I was up to accepting any type of case to try and earn my keep and pay for the kids’ dinner the next night.  There had been a rather sensational criminal trial a few years before involving arson, threats, incest , and attempted murder against a prominent docotor in our town.  He was an ENT.  He had been molesting his own daughters for several years.  After he was exposed by his wife and she was seeking a divorce and he was out on bail pending the trial for incest and child molestation he firebombed the home of the attorney representing her in the divorce proceeding.  Fortunately he was a better doctor than an arsonist and the attempt failed.  But it was an attempt to kill everyone in that house.  He had also attempted to shoot his wife by firing shots through the door of their house.  The wife’s attorney and the victim of the failed arson and murder attempt by coincidence was now working at the same small law firm as me.   At his trial the doctor pleaded not guilty by reason of insanity and he won.  Of course that meant he was committed to the State hospital for the criminally insane for an indefinite term.  He was to be held prisoner until he recovered his sanity.   That is the way it works.  In the movies they always portray criminals getting off by pleading insanity but that is temporary insanity.  That is where you were insane only at the time of the crime but now have regained your wits.  That is a tough one to pull off and is very rare indeed but noteworthy and I guess that is why Hollywood always uses that type scenario.   But in the real world a successful plea of insanity, temporary or otherwise usually results in a commitment to prison for the insane.

This had all occurred several years before when I was just getting out of high school.  Now some 5 or 6 years later I was practicing and a judge appointed me to represent this doctor in his bid to be released from the mental prison.   In an effort to generate income and build my practice I had thrown my hat into the ring of lawyers who would take those appointments.  We were paid the grand sum of $15 an hour plus expenses.  Not a king’s ransom even then I assure you.  But I didn’t want to say no to the judge.  I didn’t know anything about the case then other than very vague memories of it from news reports.  My fellow associate who had represented the wife filled me in with lots of gory details and warned me how dangerous he was.  I learned that he had threatened many other people including the prosecutor and judge at his original trial.  He was suspected to have cased their homes but he was never tried for anything regarding that.  Also a friend of mine from law school was with the DA’s office then  and he was assigned this case to oppose the release.  He gave me even more details including the abuse of the daughters that was more than just sexual in nature.  By this time I would rather not have had the damn case but I had already told the judge yes and I couldn’t appear wimpy or picky about the cases he might give me.   I needed the business and I suppose I was just a bit stubborn about it–even a villain has a right to counsel and all that high falutin stuff.   

I went to visit him in prison.  It was quite a drive.  There was only one such facility in those days for those kinds of prisoners.  The psychiatrist on staff had recommended that he be released that is why he was able to petition the court in the first place.  The psychiatrist gave me a bunch of background and his medical opinion.   He was not impressive as a person or doctor.   I am sure that some physicians that work in those places are altruistic and truly care about their work and the patients; however, I fear many are there becasue they weren’t good enough to find a spot somewhere else.  I think this fellow fell into the latter group.   I finally met my man.   He was a small impish looking guy.  Rather quiet spoken.  I saw no need to go back over the details of his prior crimes other than to explore with him his ability to respond to the questions and barbs from the prosecutor (my friend who had warned me about taking this case).  I knew they would be tough on him.   The State was vehemently opposed to his release as were ther ex wife, his daughters and even  my fellow associate where I worked.   He talked lucidly and was friendly enough but there was something just “off” about him.  Mostly I didn’t like it that he wouldn’t look you in the eye or when he did it appeared to be a vacant stare.  So we reviewed the case and the prior problems without going into the gory details.  After all, those facts had already been proven. 
The issue now was only whether or not he was sane and a danger to anyone.   I warned him pointedly that his demeanor on the stand would be critical.  We spent a lot of time on that topic.  The bad things that happened would be reviewed and I advised he should acknowledge them without trying to justify or rationalize any of his prior actions.   I met with him several times before the trial.  It was a jury trial at the insistence of the DA.  In most cases like this it was tried only to the judge and often the DA would even agree with the recommendation of the doctors at the facility.  But not this one. 

So, trial arrives.  We had the burden of proof so we went first.  That is always the way it is in any court proceeding, whoever has the burden of proof is the “plaintiff” if you will.  I started with the psychiatrist and he did ok.  His testimony was dull and lifeless but at least he said the right words.  He was not persuasive at all.  On cross examination he was defensive about his diagnosis and prognosis rather than being firm in his convitions about the mental health of my man.  Then my man was there on the stand.  He did alright under my direct examination.  Unfortunately, he tried to “play” to the jury too much.  He had watched too many TV trials or Perry Mason.  He was emoting rather than telling his life story.  He thought he was delivering the Hamlet soliloquy.   On cross he was terrible.  He tried to downplay his actions against the others he threatened and firebombed.  He indicated the firebombing was merely a prank because he was mad about the terms of the divorce proceeding.  Bad move.  He gave almost no response to questions about the abuse of his daughters.  He did everything I told him not to do.   Even  though the issue was his current sanity the grossness of his crimes hung over the courtroom like a pall.  The State called their own witnesses. Their psychiatrist testified my guy was still loony and a real threat and danger to society.   He didn’t attack the other doctor which was the smart way to handle it but gave his own analysis.   My guy was fidgeting and uttering a few oaths under his breath which the jury could hear.   The daughters were called to recount the events with their father.  They didn’t have to give details but they said enough that the jury got the picture of what was happening to them by their own father when they were teens.   I crossed the State’s doctor but only to try and show their could be a difference of opinion and have him admit that our psychiatrist was fully qualified and competent and dealt with these type of cases on a daily basis and that he had even more experience than him.   I chose not to cross the daughters.  That was a loser.  They still hated their dad, had been abused.  What could I possibly ask that would do my guy any good?  The jury retired. We had much better juries in those days before political correctness and diversity-itis took a paramount position over getting the best jurors you could.   They found my guy was not ready for release, that he was still insane  and that he had to return to the hospital for the mentally insane. My guy immediately made vague threats about the unfairness of the trial and my presentation.  If I had done it right he would have been set free was his position and he wanted to have my ethics and legal abilities reviewed.   Alas, so turns the world.  All for a few hundred dollar fee.  He did go back and remained there for many more years.  Upon his release I was warned by my frend at the DA’s office to keep an eye out.  I talked to a few of the jurors after the case and I think most of them really believed he was sane but that his crimes were so awful that he deserved more time in prison.  That would have been the wrong thing to do because his sanity was the only issue to be decided.  But juries have a way sometimes of seeking justice and not merely adhering to the seemingly artificial dictates of the law.  All and all, that probably is not a bad thing.  I never mentioned anything to the family about his threats.  No point in making them nervous but I did stay alert.  Nothing ever happened and I never saw or heard about him again. 

For those who might think my comment about the quality of jurors harkens back to some bad old days, I would point out that then the rolls for juries came from the poll tax roll or property rolls in the county.  You got a better class of people, regardlesss of ethnic origin or any other factor.  They were more responsible citizens.  Today they take them from voter rolls and the standard jury is not of the same caliber.  I would mention that I had two black defendants acquited by all white juries during those days.   They were monolithic rednecks.  They would work the dcase and the evidence.  Sadly today I fear too many juries simply go with the sympathjy or lack of it with a defendant to determine guilt


1 Comment

Filed under Culture, family, history, law

One response to “The Scary Arson Trial Addendum

  1. Adam

    I would have been locking the doors and keeping the gun under my pillow! Are you kidding me. That guy sounds horrible. The eyes of a man (or woman) are the truest signs of the man. The eyes always tell the story. That guy sounds like nothing was there – in the head.

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