Legally Speaking: Poetic Justice, and Other Bizarre Tales from the Criminal Courts

John G. Browning Nov. 12, 2008, 3:35am

I may not practice criminal law, but that doesn't mean that I can't be a fascinated voyeur watching the bizarre goings-on in the criminal justice system.

There are so many strange occurrences, it's like wandering through a department store, with each floor playing host to weirder and weirder defendants and fact patterns.

First up in our tour is the Poetic Justice Department. Earlier this year, 28 people – all but two of them teenagers – in Ripton, Vt., were charged with vandalism of famed poet Robert Frost's former home. On Dec. 28, 2008, the defendants held a party at Homer Noble Farm (owned by Middlebury College, and a residence where Frost spent more than 20 summers).

They trashed the place, breaking windows and antique furniture, soiling the carpets, and discharging fire extinguishers. About 25 of the vandals entered pleas, in which they had the chance to wipe their record clean – if they completed a program of instruction in Robert Frost's poetry.

Prosecutor John Quinn said "I was thinking that if these teens had a better understanding of who Robert Frost was and his contribution to society, that they would be more respectful of other people's property in the future and would also learn something."

Local professors like Jay Parini, author of a Frost biography, donated their teaching time. Parini found the punishment fitting, particularly when instructing the defendants about Frost's famous poem "The Road Not Taken."

"This is where Frost is relevant," he said. "This is the irony of this whole thing. You come to a path in the woods where you can say, 'Shall I go to this party and get drunk out of my mind?' Everything in life is choices."

Unfortunately, not everyone appreciates a little poetic justice. Andrew Vactor, 24, of Urbana, Ohio, was facing a $150 fine for playing music (it happened to be rap) too loudly on his car stereo. Municipal Court Judge Susan Fornot-Lippencott offered him a deal: the fine would be reduced to $35 if Vactor spent 20 hours listening to classical music.

The point the judge was making was to force Vactor to listen to something he didn't like, just as others had no choice but to listen to his loud rap music. However, Vactor lasted only 15 minutes before opting to pay the full fine. I guess some defendants just can't face the music.

Moving on, we come to the Life Imitating Art Department. Fans of the Disney movie "The Parent Trap" may recognize the plot of a drama that recently played out in an Italian courtroom.

An Italian lawyer who worked as a part-time judge wanted to make sure she didn't miss out on fees when she found herself with an overbooked schedule. So she enlisted her identical twin sister to stand in for her as a defense attorney while she handled a case elsewhere.

There's just one problem: the twin, Patrizia, isn't a lawyer like her sister Gabriella. After clients caught on to the sister act and sued both of them for damages, prosecutors brought fraud charges against the 54-year-old twins.

And, if you enjoyed the John Grisham novel and film "The Firm," you might find the St. Louis-area law firm Boggs, Avellino, Lach & Boggs a little familiar-sounding. Lawyers at the small civil defense firm have been dying at an alarming rate.

Vincent Venker II died in August of this year at the age of 51, and the cause of death wasn't readily determined. Less than a year earlier, another lawyer at the firm, 48-year-old Daniel Bennett, died. Another attorney at the same firm, Ernest Brasier, was found shot to death at his death just before Christmas 2006; the case is still unsolved. Brasier's widow, Pat Holtreier, described the string of deaths: "There's something crazy going on at that law firm. It's almost like a John Grisham novel."

Of course, we may need to make a pit stop on our tour to the restroom. There we find the unusual case of 34-year-old Jose Cruz of Charleston, W.V. After being taken into the police station for a Breathalyzer test on suspicion of DUI (Cruz had been stopped for driving with his lights off, and then failed sobriety tests), Cruz asked to go to the restroom.

When the request was denied, Cruz allegedly moved closer to the officer fingerprinting him, and passed gas. How offensive was the odor? Bad enough to get the flatulent Mr. Cruz charged with battery on a police officer!

Perhaps concerned about the difficulty of passing "the smell test," so to speak, the Kanawha County prosecutor later dropped the battery charge.

We come next to the Misses and Juniors Department. Wendy Brown, 33, of Green Bay, Wis., was recently accused of stealing her 15-year-old daughter's identity in order to attend high school and join the cheerleading squad.

According to a complaint filed in federal court, Ms. Brown practiced with the cheerleading squad, went to classes, received a cheerleader's locker, and even attended a pool party at the coach's house.

Ms. Brown, whose daughter lives in Nevada, allegedly has a history of identity theft. Facing as much as 12 years in prison, Brown had entered a plea of not guilty by reason of insanity. Give me a "C," give me an "R", give me an "A," give me a "Z," give me a "Y" – what does it spell? Crazy!

Our department store of weird criminal cases has to have a fitting room, of course. That way, would-be bank robbers can determine if their holdup outfit of choice makes them look fat. That might have come in handy for the woman bank robber in Norf, a city in western Germany.

After the bank was robbed at gunpoint of nearly 5,000 euros, the main clue that police had was that witnesses described the robber as a woman "with a very large backside."

Weeks later, one of these witnesses was on line at the same bank when he found himself behind someone with a very familiar looking derriere; he was positive of his "rear view identification" because he would "never forget anything that big."

He alerted police and when they arrested 26-year-old Sandra Meisner she was in possession of a ski mask and a handgun (police theorize she was about to rob the same bank again). I guess J Lo had an alibi.

Moving on to the Pet Department, we encounter Texas death row inmate Gene Hathom. While awaiting the outcome of his final appeal, the convicted murderer was visited by unconventional Chilean artist Marco Evaristti.

As part of an "installation art" project intended to draw attention to America's "vulgar and primitive" capital punishment system, Evaristti and Hathom plan to deep-freeze his executed corpse and turn it into fish food, which visitors at an art exhibition would then feed to goldfish. I've heard of ashes to ashes, dust to dust, but I doubt I'll ever understand modern art.

Finally, we come to the criminal justice system's version of the Sporting Goods department. There we find a truly stupid criminal.

Biker Sander Ferenci, 28, of Oxfordshire, England, likes to videotape himself perform hazardous stunts and riding at speeds of up to 130 miles an hour. When police called at his house in response to another motorist's complaint, the not-too-sharp Mr. Ferenci asked if they had seen his YouTube video.

They hadn't, but after quickly searching the Internet and locating the uploaded video of Ferenci's hazardous riding, authorities charged him with dangerous driving. Ferenci pleaded guilty, and was sentenced to 12 weeks in jail.

I suspect Mr. Ferenci's moving more slowly now.

John Browning is a partner in the Dallas office of Gordon & Rees, LLP. He may be contacted at:

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