As readers of "Legally Speaking" know, from time to time throughout the year I chronicle the most bizarre cases, theories and parties that the legal system has to offer.
However, rather than provide you with a glimpse of the legal oddities of 2009 that you may have already heard about, I'd like to pay tribute to "the year that was" with a look back at some of the strangest cases that I didn't get to share with you – until now.
This headline from a Birmingham, Ala., newspaper couldn't help but catch my eye: "Jesus Christ Dismissed From Jury Duty."
As my mind raced with the possibilities – did He heal an injured plaintiff, thus ruining hopes of a big verdict? – I read further. It seems a 59-year-old woman, formerly known as Dorothy Lola Killingsworth, had her name legally changed to "Jesus Christ."
In late November, the woman was called for jury duty in Jefferson County, Ala. According to court officials, although she was evidently willing to serve, fellow potential jurors laughed out loud when the name "Jesus Christ" was called. In addition, "Christ" repeatedly asked questions about the criminal case, instead of answering questions.
Because of the potential disruptive effect of having "Jesus Christ" on the jury, she was excused from serving by Judge Clyde Jones. I guess the jurors who were actually chosen to hear the matter might have wondered during deliberations, "What would Jesus do?"
It may not have been divine intervention that cleared a Swedish man of murder, but it certainly must have seemed like it. After over a year of insisting that he didn't kill his wife, 68-year-old Ingmar Westlund was finally cleared when police concluded that 63-year-old Agneta Westlund was murdered – by an elk!
Mrs. Westlund had last been seen in September 2008 taking the family dog out for a walk in the forest near the village of Loftahammer. After Mr. Westlund found his wife's body by a neighboring lake and alerted the authorities, he was promptly arrested and held in police custody for 10 days.
What followed was "a nightmare" according to Westlund, as suspicions of his involvement continued throughout an investigation that dragged on for months. Finally, after a forensic analysis of Mrs. Westlund's clothing revealed the presence of elk hair and saliva, police concluded that a European elk, or moose, killed her.
Although normally shy around humans, the European elk is known to become aggressive under certain circumstances, especially after eating fermented fallen apples. If you think it's tough to convince authorities of an alibi under normal circumstances, try convincing them that a murder was committed by an elk that happens to be a mean drunk.
If they ever cast for a remake of the TV show "Bewitched," perhaps they should call Canadian defense lawyer Noel Daley. The veteran attorney was allegedly bilked out of more than $100,000 by Vishwantee Persaud, after she convinced him that she came from a long line of witches and that she embodied the spirit of his late sister.
Daley purportedly paid for Persaud's educational expenses, rent, and even set her up with a job. After the con was exposed, Persaud was charged under a hundred-year-old Canadian criminal statute intended to punish those who pretend to use "witchcraft, sorcery, fortune-telling or conjuration" for fraudulent purposes.
If a real-life version of "Legally Blonde" is more to your tastes, then get ready for the story of Georgina Blackwell. In November 2009, the 23-year-old blonde beautician from Essex, England, represented her mother in a courtroom dispute against one of the United Kingdom's biggest homebuilders.
Blackwell's mother Sandra already had a High Court judgment entered against her and in favor of Bellway Construction over a right of access involving Blackwell's beauty salon and the walls of a bordering former factory. Faced with the prospect of either paying Bellway's legal costs and accepting the demolition of part of her mother's business, or paying over $10,000 to retain a lawyer, the attractive young blonde came up with a third option: try the case herself.
Ms. Blackwell researched the property deeds, and found a legal loophole. Although she "felt scared stiff by the huge courtroom," Blackwell feistily took on the developer's legal team, putting on evidence and cross-examining witnesses.
The beautician triumphed, not only managing to overturn the previous judgment but also winning nearly $125,000 in compensation for her mother. She may have won even more than that – after the verdict, Blackwell received an offer of a law school scholarship worth over $16,000.
She's getting ready to give up styling hair and begin studying law, calling it "the chance of a lifetime." I can't wait to see the movie version.
Hopefully, any jurors encountering future barrister Georgina Blackwell will focus more on her courtroom skills than her looks. That unfortunately wasn't the case in Warren County, N.Y., recently.
In November, an appellate court determined that a mistrial wasn't necessary in a fatal child abuse case. A juror had caused controversy by sending a note to the presiding judge during trial, asking for the phone number for the assistant district attorney, whom she referred to as a "cutie."
She also asked, perhaps tellingly, if the judge could recommend a good divorce lawyer. After the judge questioned the juror, she recognized the inappropriate nature of her actions and apologized. Perhaps she'll stick with Match.com or speed dating from now on.
Finally, we come to a bizarre verdict to which everyone working in an office can relate. Vicki Walker, an employee at New Zealand's ProCare Health, was fired from her job for her habit of sending "confrontational e-mails" to co-workers – brusque, even rude missives in all caps and boldface (sometimes red) print. Her bosses said she caused "disharmony in the workplace."
Walker didn't take the termination lying down: she filed a wrongful termination lawsuit and won, receiving a verdict of more than $17,000 in lost wages. But even that wasn't enough to satisfy Ms. Walker, who maintains "They nearly ruined my life."
The only thing that remains to be seen is whether Walker files an appeal. If so, look for it to be in all caps, boldface and red-colored type.
John Browning is a partner in the Dallas office of Thompson, Coe, Cousins & Irons LLP. He may be contacted at: firstname.lastname@example.org