Legally Speaking: Some defenses never rest – even when they should
As I contemplated the bounty of another Thanksgiving, I paused to reflect and give thanks for the many blessings given to me: a loving family, good health, a successful career, and an abundance of idiots and oddballs in the legal system to give me a steady supply of material for my column. Yes, if it weren’t for people like that providing grist for this literary mill, what would I have to write about? If you don’t believe me, just look at some of the stranger defenses that litigants have been resorting to lately. The “You Got My Name Wrong” Defense California defense attorney Debra Bogaards threw everything but the kitchen sink at San Francisco Superior Court Judge Wallace Douglass recently, all in an effort to win a new trial after her client — the California Academy of Sciences — was hit with a $1.4 million personal injury verdict. An employee of the Academy rear-ended plaintiff Susanne Ice-Dunnigan, causing her back injuries. Bogaards methodically went through 14 possible grounds for granting a new trial, over the course of hearings lasting two days. Her most creative reason? According to Ms. Bogaards, the judge “impugned” her credibility with the jury and revealed bias against her by twice calling her “Ms. Bogus” in front of the jurors (on one occasion, the judge apologized for getting the name wrong). While this “Bogus” defense was certainly a novel one, it didn’t work: the judge refused to toss the verdict. It Was My Other Personality That Did It Holy, Sybil, Batman! Can you really blame an alternate personality to escape responsibility for a crime? That’s what New York doctor Diana Williamson tried when facing Medicaid fraud charges last month. The 56-year-old doctor, who had pleaded guilty, was seeking a more lenient sentence for writing phony prescriptions that cost Medicaid $300,000. Dr. Williamson claimed that one of her multiple personalities, “Nala,” carried out the scheme unbeknownst to her. According to her attorney, Dr. Williamson developed multiple personality disorder more than 25 years ago, following years of childhood sexual abuse. The federal judge considering the sentencing request delayed making a decision to evaluate other medical issues facing Dr. Williamson as well. Blame It on the Mayan Apocalypse A man in Kemerovo, Russia, is challenging the payment of a traffic fine, citing those who claim that the Mayan calendar predicts that the world will end on Dec. 21, 2012. And, hey, if the world is going to end anyway, why should you have to pay a traffic ticket, right? The defendant says the impending apocalypse makes paying the fine pointless, and he even provided charts detailing the “imminent” end of the world. It looks like the “Doomsday defense” isn’t just on a football field. Just to play it safe, maybe the court should schedule his hearing for Dec. 22, 2012. Because I’m Going Through a Divorce The people of Jacksonville, Fla., have a spanking-new, $350 million courthouse. Of course, it looks a little less new after a Florida woman upset with her divorce went on a graffiti rampage. Thirty-five-year-old Aubrey Dostie, caught up in a messy divorce and custody proceedings, vented with the help of cans of spray paint. She spray painted broken hearts, the words “free us,” the message “F_ Judge James Ruth,” and “$300 million courthouse.” And the rampage didn’t stop at the courthouse. Dostie allegedly went to the corporate headquarters of her estranged husband’s business and spray painted more messages. The “Because I’m An Idiot” Defense Some labels you choose yourself, while others are thrust upon you. Thirty-two-year-old Shena Hardin of Cleveland, Ohio, decided she was simply too busy to stop for a stopped school bus or to wait patiently to use the street. So, she passed the school bus and drove on the sidewalk instead (right in front of a day care center, no less). After police caught her and charged her with reckless operation of a motor vehicle and failing to stop for a school bus, the Cleveland municipal judge suspended her license for 30 days and imposed a $250 fine. The judge also ordered Hardin to return to the scene of her crime the following Tuesday and Wednesday, and to publicly wear a sign that read “Only an idiot would drive on the sidewalk to avoid the school bus.” The “I’m the Dumbest Robber Ever” Defense There are several worthy contenders for using this defense. The first is Amanda Ringler of Payne, Ind., who pointed an umbrella at an employee working the drive-through window of a fast food restaurant and demanded money. The employee hit the panic alarm, and Ringler drove away empty-handed—but not before witnesses took down her license plate number. Ringler was sentenced to three years for attempted theft; that’s a lot of rainy days to think about. Another contender is 31-year-old Kerri Ann Heffernan of Bridgewater, Mass. Heffernan is accused of robbing four banks in the vicinity of Brockton, Mass. During one robbery, the teller actually recognized her, called her by name, and asked if she wanted to make a deposit. When you’re recognized in mid-robbery attempt, it’s time to find another source of cash. Finally, there’s Eric Lee Siggins, who was found passed out on a bench outside of a bank in Framingham, Mass. Onlookers who were going to use the ATM alerted police to the man when they saw a handgun in the waistband of his pants. Police found him unresponsive, but with duct tape, handcuffs, a knife and a gun. Siggins might be released after the judge noted that no crime had actually been attempted, much less committed, due to Siggins’ passed-out condition.