Legally Speaking: Life imitates art, even in the law (Part 2 of 2)

John G. Browning Jan. 16, 2008, 12:28pm

In last week's column, I discussed a lawyer who's installing a shark tank in his office, straight out of the John Grisham movie "The Rainmaker." More and more, however, it seems that's no isolated instance of life imitating art in today's wacky legal system.

Spectators in a Pennsylvania courtroom in April 2006, for example, may have thought they were witnessing a scene out of "Monty Python and the Holy Grail." Samuel Shoemaker, a 49-year-old man with no legs and only limited use of his arms who uses a motorized wheelchair to get around, was upset with Judge John Driscoll after a family court hearing. Apparently, Judge Driscoll had ruled against Mr. Shoemaker on an issue involving child-support payments.

An irate Shoemaker allegedly was overheard, in the courtroom and later in an elevator, making threats that he would "punch and strangle" the judge. As a result, Shoemaker is now facing prosecution for making death threats against a judge. Defense attorney Richard Galloway has asked that the charges be dismissed because his client is physically incapable of carrying out the threat.

"It's nonsense," says Galloway. "The question is, who would honestly believe it? …It's unlikely he would have been able to do anything because he has no legs and limited use of his arms."

While Judge Driscoll says that he "did have concerns" that such a threat might be carried out, it seems all too reminiscent of King Arthur's battle with the Black Knight in "Monty Python and the Holy Grail." After Arthur has handily defeated his stubborn opponent (hacking off limb after limb), he rides off as the Black Knight – now reduced to essentially a torso – insists that he come back and continue the fight.

In New York earlier this month, it appeared that James O'Hare and David Dalaia may have watched the movie "Weekend at Bernie's" once too often. The two men wheeled the body of Virgilio Cintron (who shared an apartment with O'Hare) in an office chair to a Manhattan check-cashing store in an attempt to cash the dead man's $355 Social Security check.

As a skeptical clerk and other witnesses observed Cintron's corpse flopping from side to side while O'Hare and Dalaia vainly struggled to prop him up, police and emergency medical personnel were summoned to the scene. Both men are now facing check fraud charges. At least in "Weekend at Bernie's," the titular dead man was treated to a Caribbean vacation complete with parties and waterskiing as his two scheming employees (played by Andrew McCarthy and Jonathan Silverman) sought to access his offshore bank account after Bernie's inconveniently timed demise.

For those of you who chuckled at Dr. Evil's demands for "one billion dollars" in the "Austin Powers" movies, you'll get a real kick out of the price tag sought by one Hurricane Katrina victim who is suing the U.S. government. The government is facing roughly 489,000 total claims following the Aug. 29, 2005, hurricane. Of these, more than 200 seek over $1 billion dollars, including a claim asserted by the city of New Orleans itself for $77 billion.

But as traumatic and extensive as the damages and suffering were (more than 1,600 deaths and over $60 billion in insured losses alone), at least one of the claims is grossly exaggerated. An unnamed claimant from Baker, La., is seeking $3 quadrillion from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. To put that number in perspective, merely $1 quadrillion would dwarf the entire national gross domestic product ($13.2 trillion in 2007).

Three quadrillion dollars is "the mother of all high numbers," says Baton Rouge economist Loren Scott. While Corps of Engineers spokeswoman Amanda Jones says that "we're taking every single claim seriously," you've got to be kidding me. Perhaps this individual has heard one too many playground demands of "a zillion bajillion dollars" and thought this was a serious number, or perhaps he views this as a negotiating tactic (starting high and negotiating downward – waaay downward). Of course, he might also be a moron.

Sometimes, when I hear of the seemingly outlandish plots on law-themed shows like "Boston Legal," I think "that could never happen." But never say never, as the case of Scott Anthony Gomez Jr. demonstrates.

Gomez is an inmate who twice escaped from the Pueblo County, Colo., jail, most recently in 2007. This month, he filed a lawsuit in federal district court in Denver alleging that the prison guards didn't do enough to stop him from breaking out!

According to Gomez, the cell doors in his maximum security wing could be easily opened, and the tiles in a shower ceiling were loose. This allowed him to climb out a hole in the ceiling; unfortunately for Gomez, he tried to scale down the side of the jail, fell 40 feet, and was seriously injured. The lawsuit, which doesn't specify how much money Gomez is seeking, maintains that jail authorities (several of whom are sued individually) "did next to nothing to ensure that the jail was secure and that the Plaintiff could not escape."

That's right – a convict temporarily escapes, hurts himself in the process, and now is suing the jail and its guards for not preventing him from doing so. This case deserves as much time in a court of law as a snowflake would get in August.

And, if that story wasn't enough of a "mom bites dog" scenario for you, consider the case of Joshua Hoge. Hoge has a fairly innocuous request – he wants to inherit at least part of his mother's estate, which includes $800,000 won in a civil suit by her family.

There's just one or two minor details that need to be worked out; first, Hoge is making his request from Western State Hospital in Washington, where he has been confined since stabbing his mother and brother to death with a butcher knife in 1999.

The second problem is that the money in Hoge's late mother's estate is made up, in part, of $800,000 which the estate received in a civil lawsuit against county authorities, when it was decided that a public-health clinic had negligently failed to give Hoge (a 37-year-old schizophrenic) his medication, and was therefore partially responsible for the killings.

That's right – Hoge kills his mother, is found not guilty by reason of insanity and confined to a state hospital, the estate recovers a judgment, and now the killer is seeking a windfall.

Oddly enough, Washington like many states has a law that prohibits murderers from profiting off their victims. However, because the statute refers to "willful" and "unlawful" killings, the legal picture becomes murkier since Hoge was found not guilty by reason of insanity, and therefore – according to his lawyer – it was neither "willful" nor "unlawful."

An appeals court has sent the case back to the trial court, saying that while Hoge might not be criminally responsible, the issue of whether his act was willful was a matter that still needed to be addressed. While Seattle University law professor John Strait acknowledges that this is "nutty logic," he agrees that Hoge may very well be entitled to the money.

"For all intents and purposes, there is no crime," he says. "We don't punish people for being really sick."

Sometimes I wonder why Hollywood is worried about the writer's strike. The truly strange can be found right in our own courtrooms.

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