Sunday, April 17, 2011
Influence in the Courtroom
I was interested to see District Judge Dorothy Wilson's name in the paper again last week. Wilson sentenced Baltimore Ravens assistant coach Andy Moeller to probation despite his second conviction for driving after drinking too much alcohol.
The last time I saw Wilson's name was about a year ago when she acquitted Kelli Oliver, the daughter of Baltimore County councilman Kenneth Oliver, of disorderly conduct and assaulting an officer. The Baltimore Sun editorialized that the acquittal smacked of political influence. I didn't witness the trial myself, but was glad to see The Sun finally call out a judge by name.
So was the Moeller probation another instance of influence? I doubt it. No matter who the drunk driving defendant is, American courts and motor vehicle administrations are consistently lenient until someone is maimed or killed.
But it did remind me that I had finally listened to the tape of the Kelli Oliver acquittal. I took up the challenge issued by Oliver's mother in a letter to the editor, who invited readers to listen to the evidence and make their own decision. I also noticed an anonymous comment that Judge Wilson's verdict was based on the fact that the judge and defendant were both black. (Funny how I never see comments like that when white judges acquit white defendants.)
So what was it, a good verdict, a politically-influenced verdict or a racially-based verdict?
Kelli Oliver was driving with her daughter at night when a county police officer stopped her car for having a light out. The facts boil down to this: Oliver's daughter was immediately loud and abusive. The officer pulled Oliver aside and told her that he only intended to issue a repair order but that she needed to control herself and her passenger. Oliver went ballistic. She was insulting, threatening, and loud.
The officer testified that cars were slowing down to watch the scene and that he decided to arrest her for disorderly conduct. She resisted, he tried to take her to the ground, and she bit him through the skin. He then punched her in the face, causing facial fractures. It was an ugly, brutal encounter brought on by Oliver's over-the-top reaction to a legitimate stop of her car.
The technical basis on which Oliver was acquitted is discussed below for those who are interested. But the verdict was based upon Judge Wilson's application of the the wrong standard of proof.
Judge Wilson struck me as quite professional. I could perceive no hostility or bias toward any party. Did she just make a mistake, or was something else going on?
The answer may lie with another case I witnessed nine days after Wilson acquitted Oliver of assaulting the police officer. I went down to court to order the CD recording of the Oliver trial, and decided to watch a traffic docket that was getting ready to start. And none other than Judge Wilson took the bench. She explained to us how she would conduct the docket, including the fact that all fines imposed had to be paid that day.
Judge Wilson had a pleasant demeanor and appeared even-handed. She convicted one defendant I would have acquitted, but that's the subjective nature of judging facts. She was true to her word, and told one defendant who couldn't pay his fine that he needed to come back that day with the money. The docket was unremarkable until close to the very end.
And up walked Jean Fugett, ex-Dallas Cowboys and Washington Redskins tight end, and brother of the late Reginald F. Lewis. The same Reginald Lewis of The Reginald F. Lewis Museum of Maryland African American History and Culture in Baltimore. Lawyer, businessman, entrepreneur, philanthropist, Lewis was a heavy hitter. Fugett's wikipedia entry says that Fugett, who is also a lawyer, took over his brother's billion dollar company after Lewis died, though it doesn't say for how long.
Fugett got a smile and a greeting from Judge Wilson as he walked up to the table. He announced that he was guilty of driving with a suspended registration, that the police officer in the case was wonderfully professional, and that he needed time to pay the fine because he didn't have the money that day. And he walked out with no fine to pay at all, because Judge Wilson suspended it.
It wasn't about race. It wasn't about the law. And it wasn't about fairness for all the defendants in court that day.
It was about who knows who.
In the courtroom, as well as everywhere else.
Kelli Oliver's acquittal began with her high-profile attorney, A. Dwight Pettit, moving to "suppress" the evidence against Oliver. Suppression motions are used to keep incriminating evidence out of court, such as drugs, guns and confessions, when the police violate a defendant's constitutional rights.
Either Petit doesn't understand the law or he thought Judge Wilson didn't, because there was no evidence in the Oliver case to suppress. The police seized no incriminating evidence and obtained no confessions. But by allowing the case going forward on a suppression motion, Wilson conducted the trial in confusion.
Eventually Wilson ruled that "the elements of disorderly conduct were not present." This is an acquittal on disorderly conduct, but not a ruling that the officer's arrest was illegal. Conviction requires proof beyond a reasonable doubt. But a legal arrest only requires that a police officer have reasonable grounds to believe that a crime was committed. Judge Wilson never ruled on this. And frankly, given the officer's testimony, which wasn't contradicted, she couldn't have fairly found that the officer lacked reasonable grounds.
But spurred on by Pettit's motion, she treated her acquittal on disorderly conduct as the equivalent of an illegal arrest. And it was a short step from there to find that Oliver could legally bite the officer who tried to arrest her, because citizens can use "reasonable" means to resist an illegal arrest. The prosecutor argued--persuasively, it seemed to me--that no legal precedent justified biting an officer through the skin, but Wilson was too far down the tracks by then to rule against Oliver.
I don't think Wilson set out consciously to acquit Oliver. But she felt the pressure of a politically connected defendant and a high profile attorney. Black, white, male, female--influence affects them all.