Legally Speaking: Not-So-Great Courtroom Moments

John G. Browning Nov. 18, 2008, 11:53am

Most lawyers, whether we admit it or not, secretly hope for the chance at a true "Perry Mason" moment in the courtroom: that lightning in a bottle instant when you make the other side's star witness break down or confess.

The truth is, such moments rarely happen. From law school trial advocacy classes onward, lawyers are advised never to ask a question to which they don't know the answer. However, despite the best-laid plans, what transpires in court can take an unexpected turn.

That Could've Gone Better: Michigan criminal defense attorney Tim Barkovic couldn't have seen this coming. While defending one of two defendants accused of felony murder for a robbery gone bad that left one store clerk dead and another wounded, Barkovic was cross-examining a police informant named David Maki.

After he called Maki a liar and a snitch, the witness got angry and defiantly stated in open court that Barkovic had sold him drugs. The accusation, which Barkovic called ridiculous, led to his client requesting a new lawyer (which the court denied) and resulted in the defense attorney asking for a mistrial (which Judge Donald Miller also denied).

Maybe He Was Telling Him To Steal Third Base: One of the more amusing and strange moments from the sideshow that was Alaska Sen. Ted Steven's recent corruption trial looked like a scene from the World Series.

During a crucial cross-examination of the government's star witness, VECO founder Bill Allen, Stevens' defense team purportedly saw Allen's personal attorney Robert Bundy (who was in the public gallery facing his client) giving signals to Allen.

Calling it a "blatant obstruction of justice," Stevens' lead attorney Brendan Sullivan called the judge's attention to Bundy's alleged signaling, which included nodding his head when Allen gave certain answers.

Although Bundy vehemently denied any such signaling, he did not return to the courtroom the next day. The presiding federal judge was not amused, either, saying that Bundy was "fortunate he went out [the front] door and not the back door with the marshals."

If Only He Used Spell Check: During a federal civil rights suit in Philadelphia that he actually won, lawyer Brian Puricelli made a request to the court for more than $180,000 in attorney's fees.

U.S. District Judge J. William Ditter, Jr. slashed the request by $154,000 because of "slip-shod submissions" by Puricelli that included such misspellings as "plaintf," "Philadehia," "attoreys," "reasonbale" and "Ubited States."

Even after he allowed Puricelli to file an amended fee petition, Judge Ditter noted that there were still misspellings, misquoting of a federal statute, listing the wrong court rules, listing the wrong first name for a police officer, making errors in case and statute citations, missing words, and incorrectly identifying the amount of damages awarded by the jury as $15,000 instead of $150,000.

Judge Ditter lowered the attorney's fees to about $26,000 because of all the mistakes. Although Puricelli called Ditter's ruling a "cheap shot" (hey, at least he spelled that right), it's actually not the first time that his fees have been lowered because of sloppy written work; in February, 2004 another judge did so while criticizing Puricelli's "complete lack of care in his written product."

I'm Not As Think As You Drunk I Am: In Linz, Austria, a 65-year-old man charged with drunk driving was moved to protest. After police stopped him and took his driver's license and car keys, the man went home, picked up his spare keys, and returned to the abandoned vehicle.

He then drove to police headquarters to complain about the charge, at which point officers detected that he was still under the influence. He was then promptly arrested again.

If The Brain Scan Doesn't Fit, You Must Aquit: In Miami County, Ohio, Mark Stemple was trying to have Olga Dunina declared a "vexatious litigant" (someone who abuses the court system by filing frivolous suits or actions merely to harass other parties).

His chances were pretty good, especially since he pointed out the eight or more lawsuits she had filed (employing at least nine different attorneys) within a short period of time.

Dunina responded to the lawsuit in, well, unconventional fashion. She asked the trial court to order that Stemple submit to PET brain scans "to determine his brain pathology;" she alleged that Stemple had engaged in male prostitution and illegal drug and firearms trafficking; she claimed that Stemple's former attorney, Trisha Duff, had kidnapped him and forced him to move to Florida; and she opined that both Duff and Stemple's current lawyer James Kirkland, suffered from unspecified damage to the frontal lobes of their brains.

Not surprisingly, the trial judge denied Ms. Dunina's motions, and she was declared a vexatious litigant.

He Wouldn't Get Away With This In Judge Judy's Court: Kansas City, Mo., lawyer Carlos D. Romious has what you might call an anger management problem. Romious was in Greene County Judge Tom Mountjoy's court this summer defending Alton Vaughn in a fraud trial. According to a judgment of contempt filed by the judge on July 24, Romious "loudly and rudely" asked Mountjoy "if the 'proceeding was a joke'" and told the judge "you're going to sit your ass up there."

Romious also accused Judge Mountjoy of "corrupting and stinking up the case," "corrupting this system," and of being a pedophile. In addition, after taking documents from his opposing counsel, Romious purportedly wadded up the papers and smashed them with his shoe.

As if this wasn't bad enough, Romious also failed to show up for court on the first day of Vaughn's trial.

The reason? According to court records, Romious himself was scheduled to appear in Kansas federal court as a defendant charged with assaulting a court security officer. That stemmed from an incident in which Romious had allegedly assaulted an officer after refusing to go through a metal detector at the Kansas City courthouse.

Everybody Loves a Lawyer Joke – Including the Jury: In federal court in Massachusetts, Benito Grullon was convicted of conspiring to distribute cocaine. He appealed, in part arguing that the judge should have declared a mistrial when it was discovered that there was "extraneous" material in the jury room during deliberations.

The offending document? It consisted of lawyer jokes, printed out from a Web site making fun of the legal profession. The page, entitled "Sharks and Lawyers – A Comparative Study," disparagingly compared lawyers to sharks in various ways.

The judge denied the mistrial request, and the appellate court agreed. It stated "Here the lawyer joke posed no real danger of prejudicing the jury against the defendant, having anything to do with the issues in the case or any more connection with one side's counsel than the other's."

In other words, Mr. Grullon, the jurors were laughing at all the lawyers, not just yours. While a lot of things that can happen in a case are surprising, unfortunately having fun at the expense of lawyers is not one of them.

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

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