Southeast Texas Record

Monday, March 30, 2020

Legally Speaking: Watch what you say, and when you say it

By John G. Browning | May 13, 2014

Browning john 2013

Lawyers have gotten the nickname “mouthpieces” for a very good reason — people can get themselves into a lot of trouble for what they say.  This is especially true in criminal cases, where there is a right to remain silent for a reason, but also in civil cases.

Here are some examples of people who probably should have been more careful with what they said, and when they said it.

The “Deathbed” Confession

Whoever murdered Joyce Goodener appeared to have gotten away with it.  The Tennessee woman’s body was found on July 5, 1995; she’d been stabbed in the neck, beaten with a cinder block and set on fire.

With no DNA or other evidence, the case grew hopelessly cold.  Then, in 2009, came an unexpected break.  James Washington, who was in jail for an unrelated crime, suffered a heart attack.

Thinking he was about to die, and wanting to clear his conscience, Washington motioned to one of the guards, James Tomlinson, and said he had a confession to make.  He confessed to Goodener’s murder, providing gruesome details, but later the unexpected happened: Washington survived.

The convict tried to change his mind about the “deathbed” confession, but it was too late.  Prosecutors were allowed to use the confession, and Washington was found guilty of first-degree murder.

He Put a Ring on It, Even If He Didn’t Want To

Louis Billittier Jr. of Buffalo, N.Y., is the kind of guy that gives guys a bad name.  Not only did he break up with his bride-to-be, Christa Clark, in 2012, he did it via text message.  That’s pretty cold.

And then he sued Clark to get the engagement ring back — a white gold, 2.97-carat diamond ring valued at $50,000.  And under New York law, if it had been as simple as a ring given as part of a marriage “contract,” Billittier would probably have the bling back by now.

But in the exchange of angry texts with his jilted fiancée, Billittier texted “Plus you get a $50,000 parting ring.  Enough for a down payment on a house.”

New York State Supreme Court Judge Russell Buscaglia ruled that such a statement was enough to make the ring a “parting gift,” which Ms. Clark was free to keep.  Too bad, Louis; thanks for playing the litigation game, where we have no parting gifts for you.

Maybe They Should Have Used More Anesthesia

A man in Fairfax, Va., is suing the anesthesiologists who sedated him for an April 2013 colonoscopy procedure for the defamatory statements they allegedly made about him during the operation.

How does he know that he was the butt of their jokes?  Apparently, the plaintiff had inadvertently left his cell phone in the room, set to record.

When he and his wife were on the drive home afterwards, they realized the phone had recorded what the doctors said throughout the procedure, as they mocked their patient from the second the anesthesia kicked in.

Among other comments, the doctors allegedly joked that the patient had syphilis, was “a big wimp,” was gay, and they joked about firing a gun up his rectum.  In addition, these same doctors allegedly discussed misleading and avoiding the patient after he woke up, as well as plans to tell him that he had hemorrhoids even though he did not.

The plaintiff is suing for over a million dollars, claiming that he suffered embarrassment and mental anguish after he heard the doctors’ comments.

Make Sure the Judge Doesn’t Speak Romanian

Alex Michaels was not having a good day in court in Florida.  At one point, he extended a hand toward another witness, Mr. Von Zamft, and mumbled the words “futos gutos monte” at him.

Unfortunately for Mr. Michaels, that phrase is a profane one in Romanian, and one with which the trial judge was familiar.  He charged Mr. Michaels with criminal contempt.

Michaels appealed, claiming no one could be insulted by words they don’t understand, and so he shouldn’t be punished for his “Romanian mumble.”

The appellate court disagreed and upheld the contempt finding, saying “Mr. Michaels somehow is under the impression that cursing in his native tongue is somehow less contemptuous than cursing in English.”

Next time, Mr. Michaels, you might want to try Klingon.

All Work and No Play Makes Jack a Dull Boy

Remember the creepy scene in the movie “The Shining,” in which Jack Nicholson’s character’s descent into madness is heralded by the fact that instead of a novel, he’s been typing pages and pages of nothing more than the phrase “All work and no play makes Jack a dull boy?”

Well, perhaps that character had a future as a court reporter in New York.  In April, the New York Post revealed that fired court reporter Daniel Kochanski had allegedly botched the transcripts for a number of Manhattan court cases.

Kochanski, according to some sources, had allegedly repeatedly typed “I hate my job” instead of actual testimony.

Kochanski denies charges that he typed gibberish, saying that he was fired from his court reporting job due to substance abuse.  Nevertheless, the situation has spawned “reconstruction hearings” in which judges and witnesses are trying to piece testimony together, as well as appeals.

Claudia Trupp of the Center for Appellate Litigation, whose office is handling many of these appeals, says “I never had a situation where a single court reporter was responsible for so much damage.”

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