Wednesday, July 11, 2012

Paranoia, Bugs and Courtroom Rituals

I have attended thousands of criminal proceedings, including a hanging, but let me tell you about the case of a man who was arrested for shoplifting and turned around and sued police for false arrest, and won.

The man had bought a skirt at one store in a mall and carried it into another shop, unbagged. When a clerk saw him she immediately called police to say he had stolen the garment. Unfortunately, police handcuffed and arrested him for shoplifting, without asking any questions.

Yes, he was later released. But, as he figured it, the damage had been done.

So, with a sharp lawyer of record and a valid receipt for the skirt firmly in hand, the man, who was mentally ill, sued. A jury agreed with him, awarding him $41,000 in damages.

After the verdict the jury foreman told me: "We believe if there would have been an investigation, there would not have been an arrest at all."

The man's case included his assertion that the arrest worsened his paranoia, and in testimony, a psychiatrist backed him up, saying that the arrest led to new delusions that police were out to get him.

After the verdict I asked the man why he had worn a bulletproof vest (the jury saw it) to court. "I don't feel safe with law enforcement in California. That is the reason I am leaving. I'll find some place nobody knows me . . . Hopefully no one will come to my back door."

I distinctly remember the headline on another story I will tell you about here: "Inmate's note fails to bug judge." (If you think writing headlines on a newspaper's tight deadline is easy, you're buggy.) Anyhow, the story reported that a county jail prisoner had sent the judge an envelope with three huge cockroaches inside, and the inmate was hauled into the judge's courtroom to explain why.

The judge had been hearing evidence about unsanitary jail conditions, and the inmate testified that "I decided to show the judge that these cockroaches do exist and are a nuisance."

For his part, the judge said he didn't open the letter because of "evidentiary" reasons, and turned it over to the county's attorneys. But, the judge couldn't help finding some humor in the incident, and jokingly questioned whether the "insects were properly booked."

In the end, the judge ruled that the county's jail was a hive of vermin, and within several years the county built a new detention facility.

Years ago a local bar association published a sampling of "rituals" that lawyers go through before or during trials. In it a county prosecutor revealed that "For final argument I always wore a particular suit that deflects bad luck. Unfortunately, in one case the defendant wore an identical suit at the preliminary hearing, and it didn't prove to be very lucky for him." Still, he explained, "I switched to a different lucky suit." I was there that day when the prosecutor and murder defendant both wore cream-colored suits. I always wondered whether the defendant's very skillful public defender had arranged it that way, knowing it would pique the prosecutor -- and obviously it did. Anyway, the defendant was Kevin Cooper, who was later convicted and sentenced to death for the hatchet-knife murders of a Southern California family, and is the subject of a new book by Pat O'Connor, "Scapegoat: The Chino Hills Murders and the Framing of Kevin Cooper."

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