Legally Speaking: A funny thing happened on the way to the courthouse (Part 1)

John G. Browning Nov. 8, 2011, 2:21am

People often ask me if some of the more bizarre stories I've shared about the criminal and civil justice systems are really true. Trust me—they are.

Besides the fact that I couldn't ethically report on something I've simply made up (unlike certain New York Times and Washington Post reporters), the fact is that even in my most creative moments I couldn't have come up with the sort of wackiness that populates our courthouses on a regular basis.

If I could, well, then I'd probably be giving lawyers-turned-writers like John Grisham and David E. Kelley a run for their money.

If you think I'm kidding, then just consider the following true incidents:

Of Course I Can Be Impartial About Myself

Derrick C. Smith of Schenectady, N.Y., got something surprising in the mail while awaiting trial for murder in September 2011 — a jury duty summons for his own trial!

It turns out that because Smith hadn't responded to a previous juror questionnaire sent out by the county, he was "automatically qualified" and issued a summons in late August; as fate would have it, the case for which the summons happened to be was the one in which Smith is the defendant.

Commissioner of Jurors Hope Splittgerber said this has never happened before in her 28 years on the job. Even Judge Richard Giardino joked that Mr. Smith had expressed his willingness to be part of the jury pool, and that if selected he promised to be fair and impartial.

The episode provided a rare moment of levity in an otherwise sobering case, in which Smith and another man are accused of shooting Michael Deveaux Jr. after a fight at a local bar in June 2010.

Burglary Can Be Hard Work, So Why Not Nap?

A 35-year-old Wichita, Kan., man was arrested in September after falling asleep while burglaring a home.

Police Lt. Steve Kenney said that the man broke in, gathered a number of items to steal, but then apparently couldn't resist the temptation to shower and take a nap. The homeowners returned, found the intruder in the bedroom, and called the police (who apprehended the suspect hiding in a closet).

Maybe this burglar's favorite bedtime story growing up was "Goldilocks and the Three Bears."

Honest—To An Extreme

Michael Andes of Shelton, Conn., feels very strongly about the lack of parking enforcement in his town. So much so that in August 2011, he parked his car illegally in a handicapped space and proceeded to call police over a dozen times—to report himself!

Authorities say that Andes "yelled" at a dispatcher, and when they finally showed up, he screamed and became so "combative" that they had to subdue him with a stun gun.

Well, Michael, the cops are on the job now. Andes has been charged with disturbing the peace, interfering with an officer, and yes—he was also given a ticket for parking in a handicapped space.

A Wink and A Nod

Serial killer Anthony Sowell of Cuyahoga County, Ohio, was convicted in July 2011 in the murders of 11 Cleveland-area women. One of his attorneys sought a new trial, though, based on a wink.

The motion claimed that the jury forewoman was prejudiced against Sowell from the start of the trial, and that she was quoted in a news conference telling how Sowell had winked at her once.

Prosecutors called the motion based on little more than a wink "asinine" and "foolish," and Judge Dick Ambrose apparently agreed. He denied the request for a new trial.

Now Sowell only has his cellmate to wink at. Good luck with that.

This Carjacker Wanted a Ride, and He Got One

Twenty-six-year-old Dionette L. Price of Kansas City, Mo., probably thought it would be a routine, run-of-the-mill carjacking when he allegedly pointed a .357 Magnum at Rayna Garrett and tried to get in her car on Highway 71 on Sept. 7.

But then Garrett tried to go around him, and Price jumped on the hood of the vehicle. So Garrett decided Price would get a ride after all—straight to the Kansas City police station, more than two miles away.

Price held on for dear life as Garrett sped to the police garage, rammed into a door and honked multiple times. Before police came out, Price fled on foot, but was arrested shortly thereafter at a nearby bus stop.

That's right, Mr. Price; mass transit seems to be a lot safer than trying to carjack someone. Perhaps you should think about that for the next, say, seven to 10 years.

The Smell of . . . Victory?

It was certainly one of the more bizarre moments in the legal annals of Pasco, Fla., this past September. First of all, 32-year-old convicted felon Morgan Armstrong was representing himself on charges of robbing a convenience store near New Port Richey twice in October 2009.

Armstrong had already been tried earlier in 2011 in a third convenience store holdup, and had been acquitted. But, Armstrong didn't feel his lawyer was "on his side" regarding the two robberies of the Beverages Plus store, so he elected to represent himself (big mistake: he was convicted and sentenced to 35 years. So much for the "jailhouse lawyer").

The trial also took a strange turn during the testimony of store clerk Falguni Patel. While describing her ordeal of being robbed with a knife at her throat, Patel fainted on the witness stand.

Now, that's not even the weird part, as dramatic as it is. What happened next is perhaps best described by the St. Petersburg Times in its coverage of the trial:

"Family member and business partner Meena Patel removed her sneaker and held it to Falguni Patel's nose, attempting to revive her with the odor."

Seriously? Someone faints, and you try to revive her with a smelly sneaker?

Maybe this will open up commercial sponsorship opportunities for our courts in an era of dwindling budgets—"This trial brought to you by Dr. Scholl's Odor-Eaters."

Is That A Snake in Your Shorts, Or Are You Just Happy to See Me?

Finally, there are people who like pets, and then there are people who like pets a little too much. Put Eric Fiegel in the latter category.

The 22-year-old Phoenix, Ariz., man was caught on surveillance videotape on July 30 stealing several baby albino boa constrictors from Predator's Reptile Center in Mesa, Ariz.

The footage shows Fiegel removing several snakes from their cage and stuffing them down his shorts before exiting the store without paying. Police apprehended Fiegel after he went to another pet store and traded some of the stolen snakes for $175 and a large reptile tank.

Apparently, this is not the only time someone's stolen a snake this way. In July 2007 the Fox television station in St. Louis, Mo., reported the case of a man arrested for theft after getting caught by a pet store's surveillance camera stuffing a black pine snake (valued at $250) down his pants.

So, the next time someone comments about the "baby albino boa constrictor" in his pants, it might not be a euphemism.

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