Thursday, January 31, 2013

This Antitrust Suit's For You, Bud

The U.S. Justice Department’s trustbusters have brewed one heck of a brouhaha in the beer business, and like the chiseled-muscle buddy who asks you to hold his beer in a barroom brawl, they’ve got your back.

The feds sued Anheuser-Busch InBev, maker of top-seller Budweiser, saying that the Belgium company’s bid to acquire all of Grupo Modelo, brewer of Corona beer, is anti-competitive and will lead to beer prices foaming up like the head on a frosted glass of draft. The case should be of interest to all beer drinkers, who, according to the Justice Department, buy beer close to home and blindly pay whatever the going price is.

While the lawsuit is complex (it took 19 U.S. attorneys to file it), here it is in one gulp: ABI owns part of Modelo and wants all of it, and last year, ABI agreed to pay $20 billion for that pleasure. Modelo is the nation’s third largest beer seller, and No. 2 is MillerCoors. The lawyers at the Justice Department want to stop the sale of Modelo to ABI, claiming Modelo is the only one of the Big 3 Brewers that doesn’t always go along with beer price hikes, refusing to follow when other brewers raise them. The feds say MillerCoors simply follows Budweiser’s lead. The feds contend Corona’s shyness for raising prices will evaporate once Bud swallows Modelo, and as a result, prices at the Big 3 will continue to increase.

These federal trustbusters are born showmen. They really know how to create a buzz. They filed the suit Jan. 31, just in time for all those beer commercials during the Super Bowl. You know when Dynastic Team Bud Light takes on Upstart Team Corona.

Here is a paragraph lifted from the suit about the beer market, and it gives a little flavor of the antitrust case: “Modelo ... has not followed ABI-led price increases in local markets in California. Because of the aggressive pricing of the Modelo brands, ABI’s Bud and Bud Light brands have reported “heavy share losses” to Modelo’s Corona and Modelo Especial. Consumers in California markets have been the beneficiaries of Modelo’s aggressive pricing. ABI rescinded a planned September 2010 price increase because of the share growth of Modelo’s Corona brand,” which the feds say has been “eating (Budweiser’s) lunch” in California.

So what’s at stake, according to antitrust division of the Justice Department? Eighty billion bucks. That’s the amount of beer Americans swill every year. The feds claim putting the stopper on Bud’s bottling of Corona will maintain competition. We should all drink to that. What’s ABI say? Well as far as the suit, they promise to fight rather than switch.

“Stay thirsty my friends.”

Friday, January 11, 2013

Calling Lazy Lawyers

I'm going to disagree with my learned friends on the California Court of Appeal who recently ruled in a case involving a Crips gang member in Riverside, who got his third strike and was sentenced to 25 years.

I don't care that this mobster got 25 to life for selling cocaine. What I do object to is the appellate justices, in ruling to uphold his conviction, also setting a precedent that encourages lazy lawyering.

Here's what happened. The man was arrested and assigned an attorney. Before trial the defendant decided his lawyer wasn't up to snuff and filed a "Marsden" motion which allowed him to ask the judge to let him fire his lawyer. The judge rejected the request but again, well before trial, the gangster filed a second "Marsden" motion in a note to the judge, saying he wanted a hearing to show why his attorney should be canned. The judge ruled he "would hear the motion on April 27th."

As often happens in California's bulging-to-to-point-of-breaking criminal courts, the guy's trial was postponed many times. At first, every delay was noted in the court's official record, stating that a "Marsden" hearing was to be held when the trial started. The first trial date rolled around and the defense attorney asked for a delay, and in the court's official record the clerk wrote, “Jury Trial / Marsden Motion to May 3." Several more continuances were approved by the judge, and each time the need for the "Marsden" hearing was duly noted in the record. However, on June 14th when the trial was rescheduled for June 21st, for the first time the court's official record didn't mention the "Marsden" hearing. Subsequently, the trial was postponed three more times -- July 7th, August 16th and August 20th -- and none of the minute orders from these court proceedings stated anything about a "Marsden" hearing. The defendant attended each of the court sessions.

Finally the trial got underway, and the judge began: “We’ve resolved most of the issues that counsel had brought before us. There was a couple of issues that counsel were thinking about, and so this is the time. If anybody has anything else that they want to say, put it on the record, make a pitch, or whatever. So feel free.” The judge never used the word "Marsden." The ignorant defendant "remained silent."

Here is what the appellate justices said in their unanimous ruling: "Defendant raised the Marsden issue by filing a handwritten motion in April 2010. However, he never again brought the matter to the trial court’s attention despite having been present in court a dozen times before his trial began. The trial court’s failure to conduct a hearing on the motion appears to have been the inadvertent result of the repeated continuances. ... Defendant had the duty of bringing his motion to the trial court’s attention at a time when the oversight could have been rectified. We conclude defendant’s failure to raise the issue before the matter proceeded to trial constituted abandonment of his claim."

So they're blaming the dumb gangbanger. How about his dumb lawyer who knew his client wanted to fire him but blithely neglected to remind the judge about the pending Marsden motion? How about the dumb judge who knew the guy wanted to fire his lawyer but somehow forgot? And how about the dumb court clerk who stopped writing the word "Marsden" in the official court records? We won't dump on the prosecutor who understandably didn't want to stick his nose in it. The appellate court lets them all off the hook, blaming the defendant who knows less about the judicial system than any of them.

The ruling coddles the man's attorney and as a result encourages laziness by lawyers who "forget" to carry through on their clients' wishes, however distasteful and self-afflicting. This ill-advised precedent also pardons sloppy record-keeping by our courts.

Friday, January 4, 2013

Dinner With A Killer

Now that my latest book is published I can return to this blog.

Most of you know me as a fiction writer. And I love fictionalizing crimes I have covered as a newspaper reporter for you, often enhancing the thrill by mixing in terrifying glimpses of the supernatural, as I did in "Image of Evil," my first novel based on the true and grisly hatchet murders of a family in Southern California.

My latest book, however, is fully non-fiction, cross my heart. "Dinner With A Killer" published in December is a memoir of the most sensational hospital serial murder case in California's history. I reported the story from discovery of the first corpse to sentencing of the murderer, a male nurse who injected victims with drug overdoses while he worked alone at midnight in the intensive care ward. The title comes from my exclusive interview with the killer over a beefsteak dinner, in which in between bites of his bloody T-bone, he remembered the last moments of life of his murder victims -- months before his arrest. The book also details the painstaking investigation of the crimes, one of the most complex in history, and includes information never before published.

You can get the new book at Amazon, Barnes & Noble, Apple and other booksellers.