Friday, August 31, 2012

Thoughts To Labor Over This Weekend

Take a minute to read this before you load the family in the van this Labor Day Weekend.

In the late-1980s I covered the "road rage" trial of a guy in Southern California who got mad while driving on the 91 Freeway, and fired a shotgun at a passenger van that had flashed its bright lights behind him.

The Mossberg slug pierced the van and killed a woman riding in the back. She was an off-duty police officer, and her husband was driving the van. They were rushing their son to a hospital, and had flashed their lights at night to get the guy to pull into the slower, middle lane and let them pass.

The shooter testified that he had argued with his wife earlier in the day, was still mad, and admitted drinking a six-pack. And, believe it or not, as he fired the 12-gauge, sawed-off shotgun, his toddler son slept on the seat next to him.

The jury was outraged and convicted the shooter of second-degree murder. But, it wasn't the only shocking evidence in the case.

That came when the victim's husband took the stand, and surprised everybody -- even the prosecutor -- by admitting he had tossed an "empty" can of Pepsi out his driver's window as he passed the shooter's car. At the time of shooting, he said he never told police about throwing the can because "it was embarrassing for me."

The shooter said the Pepsi can struck the front grill of his car, and it really pissed him off. That's when he fired at the van, killing the man's wife.

After the husband's damning revelation, he grimly stepped down from the witness box, shaken and embarrassed. His rash act of tossing the Pepsi can from the van had changed his life forever, and would certainly haunt him the rest of his days.

Saturday, August 18, 2012

He Didn't Fudge In This Grudge

This is the story of the ultimate personal grudge.

Sure, Kobe's held grudges on the basketball court, and Hearst begrudgingly hated Pulitzer. But, nobody got shot in the gonads in these grudges, and they didn't last for a quarter century.

Years ago a guy I'll call James, 50, drove to the home of a nationally known dog breeder in Southern California, and shot him dead.

James was arrested soon afterwards, and police learned his motive.

He had a grudge that began in the early 1960s. James had shipped out from Camp Pendleton with his U.S. Marine Corps brigade, leaving his bride to await his return.

Only she didn't wait. Upon his return, she admitted to having a brief affair with a man.

For the next 25 years the couple had a rocky marriage, and invariably during arguments, James dredged up her infidelity while he was a Marine.

Who knows how many times he vowed vengeance, promising to shoot the man in the crotch if he ever caught him.

At some point, James learned the man's name, and using an alias, he wrote to him and asked for a picture, saying he was a "fan" of the well-known dog breeder.

When James and his wife finally landed in divorce court, he bought a handgun.

October 23, 1987, he drove from his house in Northern California to the dog breeder's home, where using a fake name, they talked about dogs. But, the man couldn't talk long because he was leaving alone in his motor home for Arizona.

James followed him, and flagged him down on the freeway. The man stopped, and invited him into the motor home.

The ex-Marine emptied his gun into the man who had sex with his wife a quarter century ago, after disclosing his grudge that had defied decades.

Police discovered the bullet-riddled body of the 59-year-old man in the motor home parked along the interstate, and immediately ruled out suicide.

James had shot him in the crotch.

Sunday, August 12, 2012

From Marysville to Aurora

California's dubious record of taking twenty years to decide death penalty cases is safe.

The most recent decision to uphold a capital punishment sentence took the state Supreme Court just a few months over two decades. Well, nobody's perfect.

Eric Christopher Houston blamed a high school teacher for his miserable life, and paid him back by going on a 12-gauge shotgun rampage at his high school on May 1, 1992, near Marysville in Northern California.

With pockets full of No. 4 "anti-personnel" buckshot, the troubled 20-year-old viciously murdered the teacher, whom he said had flunked him in economics class and led to his dropping out of school, and three students. He wounded ten kids and held 80 in hostage-horror for eight hours while he negotiated surrender with police.

In negotiations, police adroitly lied to him, telling him he hadn't yet killed anyone. They skillfully sent him a "signed contract," saying if he surrendered he wouldn't get more than five years in a country-club-like prison. Who knows how many more people this whacko would have killed had he known he had nothing to lose.

Death penalty advocates won't like this wrinkle in the case because they insist that capital punishment acts as a deterrent: The killer told hostages that "he had studied the Penal Code, so he was aware of the potential sentence he faced." A California Penal Code was later found in his bedroom.

After a sanity hearing found him fit to stand trial, he was convicted of the murders. In the second part of his trial, called the penalty phase, the killer's defense was standard death penalty "mitigation" fare. Every bad thing in his life was paraded before the jury: alcoholic father, abused mother, uncle who killed people, his spinal meningitis and asthma as an infant, problems learning in school, IQ of 84, and according to a psychiatrist, his serious mental illness, brain damage and feelings of homosexuality -- all to help explain why he went on the rampage.

Significantly, in light of the recent murders in the movie theater in Colorado during the new "Batman" film, trial evidence showed that the school killer loved "The Terminator" movies. How is that connected with the Aurora, Colorado murders? A defense psychiatrist testified that during the rampage, school killer Houston was "dissociated, living in an unreal world, and identifying with the self-sacrificing protagonists in his favorite action movies." Because the "Batman" movie theater killer called himself the "Joker" and dyed his hair orange, expect similar testimony from his defense attorneys to try to show he was crazy at the time.

The tesimony about the school killer's mental illness didn't sway jurors, however, because like in the Aurora massacre, jurors heard about the killer's planning, and ruled the school slayings were deliberate and premeditated. Fortunately for prosecutors, the school killer left notes behind, saying, "What I did today at the school . . . my hatred toward humanity forced me." He also drew a school map and titled it, "Mission Profile." In Colorado, the fact that the Aurora killer sent a notebook to his psychiatrist with "scribblings of stick figures being shot and a written description of an upcoming attack," is clear evidence of premeditation.

An astonding thing to emerge at the school killer's trial was that at about two o'clock in the afternoon on the day of the rampage, a teacher at Lindhurst High School saw Houston walking "with a determined stride," wearing a camouflage vest, two bandoliers of ammo, carrying a shotgun and a sawed-off rifle, and asked him "if he had a permit for the shotgun." The soon-to-be-killer who had last attended the school in 1989, didn't respond, and "continued walking toward" the a buidling, where minutes later he coolly walked classroom to classroom murdering people.

A permit? A teacher sees a guy walking toward a school building with a shotgun and wants to know whether it's registered? Well, I understand this was 1992 -- seven years before Columbine -- and Marysville is rural and "hunting" around there is common. But, can you fathom a teacher today seeing a dude with a shotgun on campus and inquiring about his permit. The scream for police would be instantaneous.

After the rampage, the killer told police "he did not decide to commit the shootings until the teacher asked him about having a gun permit." Oh, now I get it. He felt his Second Amendment rights were being questioned, so he shot up the place.

Saturday, August 4, 2012

Mongolian Barbecue

Pity the poor Mongols Nation Motorcycle Club, Inc., getting "shanked" that way by a California appeals court wielding corporate law.

You've heard of the Mongols. They've been called "domestic terrorists" in court records. It's a moniker the club rejects, noting that past criminal activity is "behind us."

In 2010, the Mongols sued the Southern California city of Lancaster, an hour north of Los Angeles, after the city learned that the Mongol horde planned to hold its "convention" in the city of 157,000. Citing zoning violations, the city shut the hotel where the club had rented 100 rooms for its weekend bash.

The city's mayor didn't mince words at the time, telling a TV station: "The Mongols are domestic terrorists, and we will treat them accordingly," adding, "anybody wearing Mongol colors will serve as a beacon for law enforcement."

The motorcycle gang sued, saying the city interfered with its contract with the hotel, for which it paid $14,000. More interestingly, however, the Mongols also contended the city violated their civil rights.

In defending the city, officials asked a judge to kill the suit. While the judge dismissed parts of it, he allowed the suit to go forward to trial on the civil rights issue. The city appealed the judge's decision.

That's when the case got interesting -- if you're a legal junkie like me.

A three-judge panel of the Second Appellate District in Los Angeles County took it upon itself to do some investigating, and in April, "notified the parties it had taken judicial notice of the records of the California Secretary of State, which records indicated Mongols Inc. is a dissolved corporation."

In an opinion released August 2, 2012, the justices argued that because the Mongols had stated in their incorporation dissolution papers that they had no assets, the club was barred from claiming the lawsuit was part of the corporate "winding up" process, which is allowed for corporations being dissolved.

The appellate justices knew their "post-judgment" evidence-gathering was unusual, and tried to explain it in an opinion footnote: "While post-judgment evidence is generally not admissible on appeal, it may be considered to determine whether it renders an issue moot on appeal." Then they called their own rules of procedure "somewhat flexible," and hung their collective legal hat on a case in which the "Supreme Court deemed it appropriate to take judicial notice of an insurer's post-judgment insolvency."

The footnote should be required reading for all trial court judges in California, especially those who decry judicial activism.

Sorry, boys: appellate decisions should be based on the case presented at trial, the same evidence the trial judge considered when making his decision, and absolutely not on post-judgment evidence discovered afterwards.

In the end, the appellate court ordered the judge to dismiss the "Mongols Inc.'s action in its entirety," basing it on its own "post-judgment" evidence-gathering.

I am not defending these Mongol miscreants. But, the ruling raises a troubling question: Would the justices have used "post-judgment evidence" to dismiss this case if it had been filed by the Acme Baby Diaper Co. Inc. against Lancaster?