Judge’s Decision Results in Tragedy

BarristerHave you ever thought about how judges make decisions? Frankly, I rarely think about this as my focus is simply on persuading a judge to see it my way. But learned scholars have studied and researched the psychology of judicial decision-making with interesting results.

The authors of “Blinking on the Bench: How Judges Make Decisions”* say that judges are predominantly intuitive decision makers, a characteristic that unfortunately can lead to flawed decisions. Of course, some intuitive decisions are accurate, but as between those kind of decisions and  the more academically rigorous “deliberation” method,  acting on gut feelings or hunches can be a dangerous way to adjudicate matters of critical importance to participants in the justice system.

A case this week out of Madison, Kentucky highlights the impact of judges’ “getting it right”.

Local prosecutor Chad Lewis was in court in Madison on October 6, 2016 seeking an arrest warrant against Laura Russell’s husband, Anthony Russell, age 51. The couple was divorcing and it was going far from well. Charged in August 2016 with strangulation and domestic battery for allegedly attacking his wife on several occasions. Mr. Russell was out on bond of $500.00 and subject to a restraining order, that he apparently ignored.

This court appearance was scheduled after Ms. Russell advised the police that her husband was continuously stalking her. She was upset, intimidated and frightened.

Judge Michael Hensley presided at the hearing, however, he refused to issue a warrant for Mr. Russell’s arrest and instead issued a summons requiring Mr. Russell to attend court on  October 11, 2016 after the three-day long weekend.

Mr. Russell did not show up at court on October 11 and neither did his estranged wife. They were both dead. Mr. Russell went to Ms. Russell’s home on October 7 and stabbed her multiple times. He then  committed suicide, blowing his head off with a pistol…a tragedy that devastated Judge Hensley.

The judge released a statement to the press expressing his condolences to Ms. Russell’s family, saying he felt “horrible about her death” and understood that his sincere regret would not “bring her back”. He explained that he didn’t believe there was “probable cause” to issue a warrant and said “I made what I thought to be the correct legal decision…obviously I made a decision that had the most tragic result possible”.

Prosecutor Lewis criticized Judge Hensley for failing to accede to his request for a warrant for stalking. Meanwhile, Ms. Russell’s lawyer suggested that it was Mr. Lewis’ fault as he could have asked for a warrant for multiple breaches of the restraining order, instead of seeking a probable cause hearing for a new charge of stalking.

Judge Hensley also announced that he would institute a new procedure in respect of arrest warrants, by ensuring that a hearing be scheduled for the day the warrant request is made.

 Lawdiva aka Georgialee Lang

*Chris Guthrie,  Jeffrey J. Rachlinski & Andrew J. Wistrich

Late for Court? Go to Jail!

BarristerJudge Amanda Sammons of Campbell County, Tennessee has a strict rule that if defendants don’t arrive at court before 9 am, or 1 pm for her afternoon session, they can’t come in! When she first started this practice she instructed the court bailiffs to lock the doors. Later she agreed the doors could remain unlocked, but no one could enter after the prescribed court commencement times.

More than a few people have been caught by her rule, which is antithetical to the concept of open courtrooms and transparent justice.

Case in point: Suzanne Webb, age 39, arrived at the courthouse at about 1 minute to nine for a hearing in a misdemeanour vandalism case. She was barred from entry and waited in the hallway. Once the doors were opened she entered, took a seat, and read a book until her name was called. Judge Sammons asked her why she was late. She replied that she was not permitted to enter, whereupon Judge Sammons said, “That’s no excuse. You’re going to jail, you violated your bond.”

Ms. Webb was handcuffed and led to the jail holding area adjacent to the courtroom. Her only previous charge was for driving with a suspended license, a charge that was dropped after she paid an outstanding ticket.  She remained in custody waiting for her aunt to bring her the funds to pay the new bond, and then was released.

A few months later she was back in court where the vandalism charges were dropped in exchange for the forfeiture of her $424.00 bond. Coincidentally, the fine for a vandalism conviction? $424.00!

Other “victims” of Judge Sammons include Ryan Daniel Currier who was held without bond for 24 hours and Laura Hatfield who was ordered to post $15,000. One unlucky lady was arrested on a bench warrant, and Jason Inman was ordered held pending his posting of a $75,000 bond.

Not surprisingly, Judge Sammons, whose nickname is “the blue-eyed assassin”,  is not a stranger to controversy. She has been accused of refusing to sign orders for accused persons who are entitled to have their records expunged, and ordering children into foster care in the absence of any request from the Department of Child Services.

Formerly a kick-ass prosecutor, Judge Sammons’ election website says:

“With a low tolerance for foolishness, Mandy’s tough approach to prosecuting crime has earned her a reputation as hard-nosed prosecutor who “goes for the jugular” and doesn’t quickly back down from a fight.”

Lawdiva aka Georgialee Lang