Incompetent Lawyer is Grounds for New Trial: Or is it?

GeorgiaLeeLang009You have surely heard the time-worn adage “You get what you pay for”? Often that is true, but not always.

The decades-long investigation into the death of 15-year-old Martha Moxley of tony Greenwich, Connecticut in 1975 ultimately led to the  2000 arrest and  2002 conviction of Michael Skakel, infamous as a Kennedy cousin.

Over the years, Skakel, with the help of cousin Robert Kennedy,  battled to reverse his conviction, but was largely unsuccessful until 2013 when he persuaded Mr. Justice  Thomas Bishop of the Connecticut Superior Court to overturn his conviction, based on the incompetence of his trial lawyer.

Skakel’s trial lawyer was no junior schlep, but celebrity attorney Mickey Sherman whose reputation as a skilled, albeit flamboyant criminal counsel, was well-established.

Sherman’s successful law career was fast tracked when he became a legal commentator and analyst for  MSNBC, CNBC, HLN, Fox News, CBS, and CNN.  But his courtroom prowess took a huge hit after representing Michael Skakel in his  2002 murder trial.

Skakel’s new counsel argued that attorney Sherman spent more time basking in the limelight and charming the media than putting his mind to an aggressive, comprehensive defence of Mr. Skakel. From the outset, it was Michael Skakel’s older brother, Tom, who was suspected of sexually assaulting and beating neighbour girl Martha Moxley  with a golf club.

He was a plausible suspect who had a history of  emotional instability, anger and violence and  had admitted to consensual sexual relations with Martha on the night she died. Ms. Moxley’s diary confirmed an ongoing sexual tension between her and Tom Skakel.

Another young man, Ken Littleton,  who  worked as a tutor for the Skakel family and lived with them, also attracted the attention of police investigators. In finding that Mickey Sherman did not properly defend his client,  Judge Bishop noted Mr. Sherman’s failure to argue that either or both of these suspects was the more likely perpetrator, introducing an element of reasonable doubt, was a serious error.

Skakel also had an independent alibi witness that Mr. Sherman did not call to testify. Sherman advised the court that he had not been told about this witness, however, if Mr. Sherman had read the transcript of the  grand jury hearing he would have known.

A particularly strong prosecution witness was vigorously cross-examined by Mr. Sherman,  who  later bragged of his decimation of the witness, but Sherman failed to call witnesses who could  actually impeach his testimony.  Mr. Sherman’s excuse was that they couldn’t be found, although later Skakel’s appellate counsel easily located them.

Among the  litany of instances of ineffective assistance of counsel was Mr. Sherman’ s acceptance of two jurors who Mr. Sherman could and should have declined to seat on the jury panel.

The first was a police officer who knew Mr. Sherman and was a motorcycle buddy of one of the investigating officers.  The juror reminded Mr. Sherman that he had effectively defended a client who had assaulted the juror and had on another occasion angered this juror’s wife when he aggressively cross-examined her in another case.

The second juror that Sherman should not have approved was a woman who admitted that her good friend’s mother knew Martha Moxley’s mother. She said she thought it would be a little awkward for her to explain an acquittal to her friend and that she might feel defensive about an acquittal, given the friendship with Mrs. Moxley. She also indicated that a friend’s father had been murdered and she testified that it could be difficult for her, as a juror, to separate herself from feelings that might arise because her oldest child and Ms. Moxley were the same age. Shockingly, Mr. Sherman saw no reason to eliminate these jurors from the panel.

Yesterday a new page in this murder mystery was written when the Connecticut appeal court overturned Judge Bishop’s  judgment ending Mr. Skakel’s short-lived freedom. The court found that attorney Mickey Sherman, despite accusations to the contrary, represented him effectively and thus earned his $1.2 million dollar legal fee.

No doubt further appeals will follow.

Lawdiva aka Georgialee Lang

Advertisements

Upset With Judge, Litigant Sends Threatening Email

It’s not unusual to see divorce litigants upset with the family justice system. Whether it’s unhappiness with the court’s decision or frustration over the delay and expense of family law proceedings, the courtroom is typically not a happy place to be.

A divorce litigant in Connecticut was particularly incensed with the way his contentious divorce matter unfolded and in a moment of anger sent an email to a number of friends that targeted the judge in his divorce proceedings. The email said that he knew where  Hartford Superior Court Judge Elizabeth Bozzuto lived with her boys and nanny and that there is “245 yards between her master bedroom and a cemetery that provides cover and concealment…they can steal my kids from my cold dead bleeding cordite filled fists….as my 60 round mag falls to the floor and I’m dying as I change out to the next 30 rd.”

While Judge Bozzuto was not a recipient of the email, one person who received a copy sent it to his lawyer who contacted the courthouse and advised them of its content. Edward (Ted) Taupier, age 50, described as a hard-working, loving father and a committed community volunteer was charged with first-degree threatening, disorderly conduct and breach of the peace.

Mr. Taupier’s lawyer argued that his client’s missive was protected free speech. Criminal court Judge David P. Gold did not agree, saying that threats of violence are “punishable” speech not protected by the First Amendment. She also suggested that the prosecution had not proven that Mr. Taupier was the author of the email.  That too was rejected and Mr. Taupier was sentenced to prison for five years, with all but 18 months suspended. The Court also made a finding that Mr. Taupier had four guns that were capable of a long-distance shot.

Judge Bozzuto spoke briefly at Mr. Taupier’s criminal trial expressing her dismay and telling the judge that Mr. Taupier also referred in his email to court officials as “evil, self-appointed devils” who will only want to change the system once they “figure out they are not protected from bad things, when their families are taken from them.”

It is beyond sad that Mr. Taupier’s pent-up rage over the perceived mistreatment from the family courts has ruined his life and along with it, his children’s well-being. Eighteen months is a long time to think about one’s missteps.

Lawdiva aka Georgialee Lang

 

 

 

 

.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Legal Tsunami Accompanies Custody Battle

GEO_edited-1The level of vitriol, anger, and violence that finds its way into child custody litigation is beyond frightening, as common sense is displaced by exaggerated allegations, bizarre threats, and all too often, bodily harm or death.

The case of Tiffany and Eric Stevens of Connecticut represents the thin edge of the wedge, a story replete with allegations of infidelity, drug abuse, domestic violence, failed stints in rehab, mental health evaluations, child protection issues, harassment leading to a restraining order, exorbitant gambling debts,a hit man, and police intervention. Whew!

All it took was a five-year marriage and one little girl to create a legal tsunami that saw the Stevens’ in court on 200 occasions, the last being Tiffany Steven’s trial for hiring handyman cum hitman, John McDaid, to kill her husband for a fee of $5,000. When Mr. McDaid told Mr. Stevens of his assignment, the jig was up, and Tiffany was arrested for the attempted murder-for-hire.

But believe me, neither Tiffany, age 39, or Eric, age 49, qualify as “parent of the year”. Mr. Stevens stupidly wrote to his estranged wife saying:

“”I am going to let you bury yourself with your lies and then I am going to shovel the dirt onto your body…I will be dreaming of you laying in our bed with your addict boyfriend, the one that your mom bought us for a wedding present, and wondering to myself if you’re in that bed when they come. Will the mattress be saveable or will it have to be thrown out from all of your blood?”

When will litigants ever figure out that written expletives and threats of violence are a ticket to doomsday? Eric’s behaviour resulted in a restraining order against him and a custody order in favour of Tiffany, while he was saddled with supervised access that apparently never occurred.

Ms. Stevens advised the family court that Eric detonated his Mercedes and her BMW for the insurance money to avoid the wrath of his Mafia creditors. She also said Eric told his insurance company that all of their jewellery had been stolen to access yet more funds to pay gambling debts.

While Eric disavowed the insurance fraud he admitted his gambling debts, and agreed he posted his wife’s contact particulars on a Craigslist sex page.

Ms. Stevens was released on $1 million dollars bail after her arrest and continued to parent their daughter. The jury deadlocked during her first trial in December 2014 but this week she admitted the lesser charge of inciting injury to person and received five years probation and a ten-year suspended prison sentence.

The prosecutors threw in the towel in light of evidence, albeit from a convict, that Eric Stevens “set-up” Ms. Stevens to take a fall for a murder-for-hire that never was.

The custody battle rages on as Mr. Stevens remains committed to ensuring a relationship with his daughter. Mr. Stevens’ last word is that his ex-wife “bought” her slap on the wrist, or rather her wealthy father did. He has been self-represented for some time.

Lawdiva aka Georgialee Lang

Law At the Barbershop

49afd8240a58bf0fb97d4a86105572c1I’m sure you’ve heard the expression “he really took a haircut!”. Well, lawyer Don Howard from Connecticut will cut your hair and dispense legal advice when you come to his barbershop in New Britain.

As a trained barber and a qualified lawyer, Mr. Howard heard about a California lawyer who combined a coffee shop with a law office and was inspired to indulge his entrepreneurial spirit by opening “Legal Cuts” this May.

Howard also has an office in Hartford, Connecticut but theorized that the market in Hartford for lawyers and barbershops was already saturated so now his main base of operation is on Main Street, near the courthouse in New Britain.

He specializes in laser cuts and personal injury and criminal law and has some great specials. Every Tuesday between 10 am and 2 pm he offers hair cuts for $5.00. He also provides a white shirt and tie for men, along with the haircut, for clients that are appearing in court.

His usual fees run from $7.00 to $25.00….for a haircut. For lawyering, he charges a flat fee, no hourly rates for this business tycoon.

You certainly can’t argue when he says that his barbershop is less intimidating than a regular law office and that men like to “shoot the breeze” when they get a haircut. He says “People feel safer in a barbershop; it’s easier for them to talk about problems.”

Lawdiva aka Georgialee Lang

Twenty-Year Old Divorce Case Reopened: It’s Not Over Til It’s Over

La Spiga 2011-03-22In 1990 New York securities trader Steven Cohen was just beginning to see the fruits of his Wall Street career ripen. The only bad news was that his marriage didn’t survive and he needed to negotiate a financial settlement with his wife, Patricia Cohen.

At the time he told his wife that he had lost $9 million dollars in a co-op apartment investment he made in 1986, leaving his net worth at a mere $8.1 million. She didn’t believe him, but had no grounds to refute his assertion.

Mr. Cohen remarried two years later and built his business, SAC Capital, growing it from $25 million in assets to several billion dollars. Life was very good for him, until 2008.

It was then Ms. Cohen discovered a court file that revealed her ex-husband had settled the investment loss case with one of his co-op partners and recovered $5.5 million. She filed a lawsuit against him in 2009 alleging fraud.

Unfortunately, the first judge who heard the case threw it out saying the claim was too old to pursue and was unsubstantiated.

The Manhattan Appeals Court saw it differently. This month they reinstated Ms. Cohen’s lawsuit holding that the lack of timeliness in its filing was because she only discovered evidence of fraud eighteen years after the divorce.

My advice to Mr. Cohen: “Settle this case now, after all, you are a multi-billionaire and will likely not even notice a shortage of a couple of million.”

Besides, Cohen’s $15-billion dollar hedge-fund is the target of an insider trading investigation that has already seen the arrest of five individuals related to his Connecticut-based business. As well, two companies affiliated with SAC Capital have recently settled insider trading allegations with the US Securities and Exchange Commission for $614 million dollars, the largest insider trading settlement in the United States.

While there have been no charges laid against Mr. Cohen, the SEC is breathing down his neck. He really doesn’t need the aggravation of his ex-wife’s court action and the publicity that accompanies it.

Family law is different however. Cases that should be settled often are not because of petty vindictiveness and the need to win, and of course, Cohen can afford to bury his ex in legal fees.

Lawdiva aka Georgialee Lang