A Merry Christmas for Two Innocent Men Set Free in December 2015

BarristerAs Franz Kafka wrote in “The Trial”:

“It’s only because of their stupidity that they’re able to be so sure of themselves.”

While Vancouver’s wrongly convicted Ivan Henry spent weeks in court this year seeking compensation due to a disturbingly flawed police investigation; a prosecutor whose focus was on winning, not achieving justice; and an arrogant jurist, more innocent men around North America were set free from prison after decades of wrongful imprisonment. The numbers are staggering, but their stories are similar. Here are two tragic examples.

Native American Marvin Roberts of Anchorage, Alaska was 19 years old in 1997 when after eleven hours of police interrogation he admitted killing 15-year old John Hartman who died after being beaten, kicked, and sexually assaulted on a lonely Anchorage street. Three other companions were also arrested, charged, and all were convicted and sentenced to lengthy prison sentences. They were nicknamed the “Fairbanks Four”. Mr. Roberts received a 33-year sentence.

Alaska’s Innocent Project was eventually able to prove they were wrongfully convicted resulting in their release from prison on December 18, 2015. But in exchange for their freedom, the prosecutor’s office extracted an unconscionable concession from each of them, namely, that none of them could bring claims for compensation for the decades they spent in jail. Factors leading to their convictions included mistaken witness identification; later recanted, false forensic evidence; perjury; false accusations; and the misconduct of officials.

Floyd Bledsoe, age 23, of Oskaloosa, Kansas also lived the nightmare of a wrongful conviction for the murder, rape, and kidnapping of 14-year old Zetta Camille Arfmann, his wife’s younger sister, who lived with Floyd, his wife, Heidi and their two children.

After a neighbourhood search for Zetta, Floyd’s brother, Tom Bledsoe, discovered her body and produced the murder weapon. He then called his pastor and admitted to the crime, begging for forgiveness. He also admitted his guilt to the local police, before recanting and accusing his brother Floyd of the horrendous crime, explaining that his initial confession was in response to Floyd’s threats that he would release embarrassing information about Tom to his family and friends.

Floyd and Tom’s father, Floyd Bledsoe Sr., provided an airtight alibi for Tom, as did witnesses for Floyd. Astoundingly, Floyd was convicted of all charges and given a life sentence plus 16 years, despite a complete lack of forensic evidence against him. The prosecutor proffered evidence at trial that the rape kit did not produce any DNA results.

Floyd’s multiple appeals were unsuccessful until one appellate court ruled that mistakes made at trial by the prosecution, that went unchallenged by Floyd’s lawyer, were grounds for vacating the conviction. He was released from prison, but after the prosecutor’s successful appeal, he was returned to complete his prison sentence.

To the rescue was Kansas University’s School of Law Innocence Project who in the course of their investigation discovered an agreement between the prosecutor, the county sheriff, and a representative of the FBI, that no DNA testing  on the rape kit would be performed, calling into question the prosecutor’s statement that the rape kit was negative for DNA.

Once Floyd’s lawyers were able to obtain DNA testing on a vaginal swab and the rape kit,  it was determined these items contained the DNA of Tom Bledsoe and excluded Floyd Bledsoe. DNA on Zetta’s socks from Floyd Bledsoe Sr. indicated he had likely assisted Tom to pull the body to its final resting spot.

A month before Floyd’s conviction was vacated, Tom Bledsoe committed suicide, leaving notes admitting he raped and murdered Zetta and apologizing for betraying his innocent brother.

Floyd spent 15 years in prison for crimes he did not commit. Again, prosecutorial misconduct together with ineffective legal counsel, and perjured testimony played a role in the injustice that befell Floyd.

Lawdiva aka Georgialee Lang

Senior Judge Admonished for Facebook Posts

GeorgiaLeeLang009Hard to believe that a Senior Judge in Minnesota would post frank comments about cases he was hearing on his Facebook page, even though he believed only his 80 “Friends”, made up of family and close associates, would see them.

However, the posts were available for all the world to see and Judge Edward W. Bearse, who has an exemplary record, was formally reprimanded this month by the Minnesota Board on Judicial Standards, the Board noting that even to disseminate his private views to his family and friends was unacceptable.

In the evening, after the first day of trial in a case alleging the accused had engaged in sex trafficking, Judge Bearse wrote:

“Some things I guess will never change. I just love doing the stress of jury trials. In a Felony trial now State prosecuting a pimp. Cases are always difficult because the women (as in this case also) will not cooperate. We will see what the 12 citizens in the jury box do.”

Three days later the accused was convicted, case closed. However, the prosecuting attorney saw the judge’s Facebook post and alerted the accused’s defence counsel to the posting. On application by defence counsel another judge vacated the guilty verdict and ordered a new trial. The Court found that Judge Bearse’s Facebook remark implied that the accused was guilty of the charge and that the victim of sex trafficking was a prostitute.

While hearing a felony case without a jury the accused’s lawyer was taken to hospital by ambulance after experiencing a panic attack in the courtroom. Judge Bearse posted this:

“Now we are in chaos because defendant has to hire a new lawyer who will most likely want to start over and a very vulnerable woman will have to spend another day on the witness stand. . . . I was so angry that on the way home I stopped to see our District Administrator and told him, “Michael, you are going to have to just listen to me bitch for awhile.” . . . [W]e know the new lawyer (probably quite justifiably) will be asking for another continuance. Terrible day!!!”

The Chief Justice asked Judge Bearse to delete the post. He did and then recused himself from the case.

In another posting, the judge wrote:

“My day yesterday in the Hennepin County District Court in Minneapolis: . . . Criminal Vehicular Homicide where defendant stoned on Xanax supplemented it w/a lot of booze and then drove wrong way down a freeway colliding w/an innocent citizen driving the right way down the same freeway killing him. . . . and most interesting — three kidnappings . . . where the three were physically tortured to try and find the drugs.”

Among other postings Judge Bearse made pejorative remarks about offenders with long records saying “We deal with a lot of geniuses!” He also referred to his courtroom as a “zoo”.

While a judge’s work is both interesting and challenging, it is also often exhausting ( as he or she listens to marginally relevant evidence ad nauseam), and brings with it a degree of public and social isolation to ensure that judges cannot be said to be biased.

Lawdiva aka Georgialee Lang

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Ex-Lawyer on Trial for Throwing His 2nd Wife Off a Cruise Ship and Putting a Hit on Wife #3

GEO#1Lonnie Loren Kocontes, age 55, formerly a lawyer in California, and later in Florida, is approaching his day of reckoning for his unfathomable deviant behaviour. He lured his second ex-wife, Micki Kanesaki, to join him on a Mediterranean cruise in 2006, where he strangled her and threw her body overboard. He reported her missing and then quickly hopped a flight back to California to reunite with his newest wife.

Ms. Kanesaki was a paralegal who had worked with Mr. Kocontes. They married in 1995 and divorced in 2001 but remained on good terms and continued living together on and off until the fateful cruise. Her body surfaced two days later, an event that likely shocked Mr. Kocontes, who undoubtedly thought he had devised a “perfect murder”.

Authorities in California did not pursue Mr. Kocontes until he was caught transferring $1 million dollars from his deceased wife’s accounts to his new wife. The money was eventually seized in civil forfeiture proceedings.

At a federal grand jury hearing in 2006 wife #3 testified on his behalf, but the FBI failed in their efforts to indict him and were later ordered by a judge to return to him $1 million dollars they had seized.

When it became apparent that neither the federal authorities nor the Italians would take jurisdiction, a California prosecutor convened a state grand jury in 2013, calling 14 witnesses including an Italian pathologist who opined that Ms. Kanesaki had been strangled and beaten prior to being tossed into the ocean. She also called Mr. Kocontes’ third wife who recanted her earlier federal grand jury testimony.

Kocontes was arrested in Florida in 2013 for “murder for financial gain” which constitutes “special circumstances” making a convicted offender eligible for the death penalty in California.

In procedural motions, Kocontes’ lawyers argued that only Italy had jurisdiction to prosecute, or alternatively, under admiralty law, the country under whose flag the cruise ship operated should take jurisdiction. The ship flew under a Bahamian flag.

Initially a California judge agreed that California had no jurisdiction to prosecute a homicide in waters off Italy, but fortunately for the victim’s family that order was reversed by an appellate court. Had the lower court decision prevailed, Mr. Kocontes would have escaped any consequences for his heinous act.

In jail awaiting trial Mr. Kocontes was not finished with his devious plans. Now aware his third wife had changed her testimony, he hired two inmates to force her to sign a letter reinstating her 2006 evidence. Once that was accomplished they were directed to kill her.

Instead, one of the hit men contacted the Orange County Sheriff’s Department and this week Mr. Kocontes will appear in a California courtroom to face additional charges of solicitation to commit murder, and one count of solicitation to bribe a witness.

It is difficult to understand how Mr. Kocontes’ greed became his central motivating factor such that he would kill his ex-wife for her money. His decision to off his third wife was to save his own skin… a desperate, defeated man who deserves to be locked up for the rest of his life.

Lawdiva aka Georgialee Lang

Lawyers Convicted of Extortion in Collection of Their Legal Bill

_DSC4179 - Version 2As a lawyer/owner who has practiced law for 26 years, I learned a thing or two about how to run a law firm. While the practice of law qualifies as a profession, and for some a “calling”, it is also very much a business. The bottom line is that if you don’t get paid, you will not be in business very long.

That’s why most lawyers understand that it is usually necessary to get a retainer “up front”. Unlike a body shop who has your car and will not release it until they are paid, or a watch repair business who will hang on to your Rolex until they get your Visa card, lawyers sell “intellectual property”, an intangible asset that is in high demand.

However, researchers who study people who need a lawyer recognize that a person with a legal problem is most inclined to gratefully accept legal advice and willingly (perhaps not happyily) pay their lawyer when they feel the most pressure i.e. when they are overwhelmed with anxiety and stress and are desperate for someone to alleviate their legal or financial pain.

Many young lawyers, including myself, way back when, have learned hard lessons about collecting legal fees. Ironically, the worst clients to collect from are so-called “good friends”. While they swear they will pay you, they often do not and usually without any justification.

Recently two senior lawyers in Tennessee broke the cardinal rule about getting paid in advance, only to be accused of extortion when they attempted to collect $50,000 they said a client owed them.

Michelle Langlois hired lawyers Carrie Gasaway, wife of a longtime local Tennessee judge, and her partner Fletcher Long to be present at the reading of her father’s will, a legal service that would cost her $800.00.

After the reading of the will, Ms. Gasaway and Mr. Long advised Ms. Langlois to challenge the will, and asked her to sign a retainer agreement. They initially offered a contingency contract of 20% of the monies they recouped for her.

Ms. Langlois instead decided on a flat fee of $50,000 for all the legal services required. She provided the lawyers with a personal cheque for $50,000 but advised them they could not cash it until she sold some of the stocks she received from her inheritance.

Langlois later sold the stock and faxed a certified cheque for $50,000 to the lawyers with a plan to meet with them to give them the original cheque. But she cancelled the meeting and in short order, fired her lawyers who angrily demanded payment of their fee.

An email to Ms. Langlois from the lawyers read:

“While we really don’t feel like you are in much of a position to negotiate, we will accept $7,000 as a full settlement […] in the event the check is not good, you will only receive more criminal charges.”

Testimony at trial indicated that Gasaway and Long had taken funds from monies held in trust for another client to purchase real estate and needed Langlois to pay her bill so they could return the funds to their trust account.

In their zeal to collect their alleged fee, they made good on their threats to put her in jail and had her arrested for “theft of services”, a charge that was later dropped once the truth emerged about the lawyers’ collection methods.

Last week a jury found both lawyers guilty of extortion, a Class D felony with a sentencing range of two to 12 years with a maximum fine of $5,000.

Needless to say their legal careers are over. Attorney Long said he is considering changing his profession because it is “too stressful. He added:

“God has a plan for me, but it’s not to practice law… I think I have some marketable skills.”

Yesterday both attorneys had their licenses to practice law revoked pending a full discipline hearing. An inevitably unhappy ending for all concerned.

Lawdiva aka Georgialee Lang

The Client From Hell

_DSC4851In the mid-2000’s Toronto police officer Richard Wills, pulled off the most masterfully cunning manipulation of Ontario’s justice system and shockingly, got away with it, mainly because nobody cared enough to pay attention. The refrain “It’s not my job” became the mantra that brought the Ontario Attorney-General’s office and Legal Aid Ontario to their knees.

Wills’ married mistress of six years, Linda Mariani, went missing in 2002. Having been dumped by Ms. Mariani, Wills was immediately identified as a viable suspect even though he broadly hinted to his police associates that her husband was the likely culprit. Four months after her disappearance Wills retained top criminal counsel to cut a deal for him. He would admit that Linda accidentally fell down the stairs in his home, and acceding to her wishes, to avoid an undesirable burial in her husband’s mausoleum, he hid her in a 60 gallon vat behind a wall in his home, so he could later bury her in the resting place she desired.

The police weren’t buying what Richard Wills was selling. They located Linda’s body where Wills said it was but the evidence screamed homicide. She had a skipping rope tied around her neck and a baseball bat jammed in beside her. She died of blunt-force trauma. Mr. Wills was promptly charged with first degree murder.

But Richard Wills was not your garden-variety repentant rage killer. No, he was different. Despite overwhelming evidence, including his confessions to at least two persons, he insisted that Linda’s death was accidental, or if it wasn’t, he was mentally ill and therefore incapable of forming the intent to murder her or understand the consequences of his actions.

The “Richard Wills Show” began with a 65 day preliminary hearing, a process designed to determine if there is sufficient evidence to proceed with a trial. Wills paid his first set of lawyers with his own money, after all, he was a millionaire. By the time he had fired multiple sets of new lawyers, he had transferred all his assets, including real estate and his police pension to his ex-wife and was now officially a pauper begging for legal aid. As an indigent criminal defendant the Attorney-General was obliged to follow Canadian case law and compelled to pay for his defence. Legal Aid received funds for Mr. Will’s defence from the Ontario government and was expected to oversee payments to his lawyers, only they didn’t realize they were to do more than just dole out money.

Representing himself for much of the preliminary hearing, his behaviour was outrageous. He was rude and childish, belching, passing gas, lying prone in the prisoner’s docket, and contemptuously degrading, swearing, and insulting the Judge, the prosecutors, and anyone else unlucky enough to be a part of the process.

He regularly urinated in the police van on the way to and from the courthouse and on one occasion displayed a handful of excrement to the Judge after a well-coordinated courtroom bowel movement. He revelled in the spotlight, ignoring the Judge’s admonitions and rebuke and obstreporously belaboured and delayed proceedings with his interminably irrelevant questioning of witnesses.

He rambled and repeated himself with the obvious goal of drawing out and delaying the hearing. He was finally ejected from the courtroom and forced to watch the proceedings via video from a separate room. Ultimately, he achieved his goal when the Attorney-General, in an unusual move, declared an end to the preliminary hearing even though it was far from finished, and directed that Mr. Wills go straight to trial. Of course, pre-trial motions occupied another 144 days before Mr. Wills 84 day trial commenced.

His antics at trial were no different. He laughed out loud, feigned mental illness, bullied his own lawyers and was repeatedly racist.

Legal Aid initially estimated that legal fees for Mr. Wills would amount to about $50,000. Boy, did they miscalculate. Thirteen lawyers took their turn at bat for Mr. Wills, including two “friends of the court.” One of Mr. Will’s last lawyers, Munyonzwe Hamalengwa, was fired by Wills before the trial commenced. He alone billed almost $700,000 for “preparatory work” and was later disbarred by the Law Society of Upper Canada for overbilling by more than $100,000.

His last and final lawyer, Raj Napal, began his representation by announcing to the Court he would be calling 18 expert witnesses.

If it is not already apparent it was Mr. Wills who was running this trial. On March 1, 2005, Justice Shaughnessy, declared, with no pun intended: “I think we have unfortunately a test of wills here.”

Sadly, at the end of this fiasco, the administration of justice and Ontario taxpayers were the fools, while Mr. Wills sits in prison, convicted of first degree murder, no doubt confounding prison authorities and fellow lifers.

Yes, it is the inmates running the asylum, or in this case, dictating the administration of justice.

Lawdiva aka Georgialee Lang

The Vexatious Litigant

BarristerDr. Valery Fabrikant was an unstable, temperamental, and frustrated engineering professor at Concordia University in Montreal when he slaughtered four of his colleagues in 1992. Acting as his own lawyer, he sabotaged his case at trial, although his murderous actions were never in issue.

No doubt impressed with his own legal prowess, he continued to file lawsuits and was eventually declared a vexatious litigant by the Quebec Superior Court in 2000, an apparently ineffective tool as today the Supreme Court of Canada dismissed his attempt to appeal a Federal Court of Appeal ruling made in 2014.

So, how does one merit a vexatious litigant label? A vexatious litigant is a person who continually brings frivolous, unmeritorious law suits intended to harass, insult and abuse the victims of his court actions and to undermine the justice system. Vexatious litigants typically represent themselves as no legitimate lawyer will take on these cases.

Attaching this label to a litigant and curtailing his recourse to the courts or ensuring that no claim can be brought without the permission of the Chief Justice of the Court is a draconian measure that is only ordered in extreme cases.

Notable vexatious litigants include:

1. JULIAN KNIGHT, an Australian mass murderer with an IQ of 132 who gunned down seven people and injured 19 in the Hoddle Street Massacre in Victoria in 1987. Knight’s multiple lawsuits were directed at prison officials and the Australian government over issues concerning prison conditions, prison discipline, access to mail, solitary confinement, and a myriad of other petty complaints. Knight was eligible for parole in 2014 but the government enacted legislation that year preventing Knight’s release from prison.

2. LAWRENCE BITTAKER, a serial murderer from California who raped, tortured, and murdered five young female hitchhikers over a period of six months in 1979. Bittaker, with an !Q of 138, sits on California’s Death Row. He filed 40 separate lawsuits against the State of California including one claiming “cruel and unusual punishment” because he was served a broken cookie. He was declared a vexatious litigant in 1993 and requires the permission of a lawyer or judge before he can commence any court actions.

3. CLIFFORD OLSON, British Columbia serial killer of 11 children between the ages of 8 and 15, in 1981, was declared a vexatious litigant by the federal court in 1994. He had filed over 30 lawsuits over issues including his lack of access to the media, his designation as a sexual offender, and his inability to vote in elections. It was reported that his case prompted the Canadian government to legislate against early release law, called the “faint hope clause”, for serial killers.

Of course, not all vexatious litigants are deranged murderers, however, prison inmates seem to be attracted to this attention-getting tactic.

4. JONATHAN LEE RICHES is a former federal prisoner in Kentucky, convicted of wire fraud, who filed over 2,600 lawsuits in six years. Victims of his court filings included publishing maven Martha Stewart; former president George W. Bush; Atlanta Falcons quarterback Michael Vick; gossip columnist Perez Hilton; pop singer Britney Spears; Apple founder Steve Jobs, and Benazir Bhutto, former Prime Minister of Pakistan.

Psychiatrists describe vexatious litigants as suffering from “querulous paranoia” or “litigious paranoia”, a subtype of a delusional disorder manifested in persons who feel obsessively wronged about minor issues and petty offences, accompanied by groundless allegations.

Their deleterious impact on the justice system cannot be overstated and unfortunately, their numbers have escalated in the last twenty years.

Lawdiva aka Georgialee Lang

Judicial Shaming of Convicted Judge Nixed by Court of Appeal

GEO#1As Elton John wrote: “Sorry seems to be the hardest word”, an adage that is certainly true for convicted Pennsylvania Supreme Court Justice Joan Orie Melvin, who was ordered to deliver a written apology to every judge in the State as part of her sentence for using state facilities and staff to run her judicial election campaign. The problem Ms. Melvin had with the order was that she was to write the apology on a photograph of herself in bracelets, also known as handcuffs.

Former Judge Orie Melvin and her two sisters were upwardly mobile stars in the Republican political firmament in Pennsylvania. Joan was initially appointed to the bench and thereafter ran several successful re-election campaigns. Joan’s sister Janine Orie worked with her, and sister Jane Orie was a Republican Senator for the State of Pennsylvania.

Unfortunately, both sisters were also charged and convicted of improper use of state services, facilities, and staff to advance Jane’s Senate campaign. Janine was also convicted in respect of Joan’s judicial campaign, while Jane was charged but acquitted.

It wasn’t bad enough that Judge Orie Melvin lost her judicial position and her pension, but she was also ordered to serve three-years of house arrest with electronic monitoring, followed by two-years probation and community service in a local soup kitchen three days a week, together with a substantial fine.

On appeal the requirement that the apology to her fellow judges be written on a photograph of her with handcuffs was eliminated, the court finding that its only purpose was to shame and humiliate her. Appeal Court Judge Christine Donohue wrote:

“The trial court’s use of the handcuffs as a prop is emblematic of the intent to humiliate Orie Melvin in the eyes of her former judicial colleagues.”

However, the first batch of letters she sent to over 600 Pennsylvania judges were not good enough according to sentencing Judge Lester Nauhaus. Her first letters included the phrase “As a matter of law I am guilty of these offences”. Judge Nauhaus was not impressed with her lack of humility and ordered a rewrite which he said he would vet before the letters were delivered. He also criticized Ms. Orie Melvin’s lawyer, Patrick Casey, for the feeble apology.

On her second attempt she wrote:

“As a former member of the Pennsylvania Judiciary, I realize that my conduct has impacted the public’s perception toward the judiciary and the difficulty it has imposed upon the discharge of your responsibilities as a judge…I accept responsibility for the crimes for which I have been convicted. I regret any harm my conduct has caused you.”

How sad that three accomplished women in the same family lacked the integrity to conduct themselves in accordance with the privilege of the offices they held.

Lawdiva aka Georgialee Lang