6 Hilarious Trials That Prove the Legal System Is Screwed
In any machine as unwieldy as the justice system, there's bound to be a squeaky cog or two. The thing is, one little squeak during a criminal trial can mean you have to toss the whole thing out the window and call a do-over, because sometimes rules made up by 8-year-olds are the best rules. Reasons for a mistrial can range from the mundane to the laughably ludicrous, and for evidence from the latter end of that scale, we present ...
"Ladies and Gentlemen of the Ju- Holy Shit, Is that Tom Hanks?!"
For obvious reasons, it is absolutely, positively, 100 percent forbidden for lawyers to talk to jurors when court is not in session. If you're serving as a juror and your car breaks down on the way home from the courthouse, leaving you stranded on the side of the road as packs of rabid chupacabras with a hankering for human pancreas snarlingly approach, any lawyer involved in the case cannot so much as stop to toss you a stick without having his or her entire case thrown out.
No exceptions. Not even if the juror is, ohmygodohmygodohmygod, Tom Hanks.
"I'll remind the prosecution that we all remember how good Philadelphia is. Please proceed."
You see, the thing about jury duty is any and every citizen can and will be called to serve it, from part-time janitors to full-time presidents. When Hanks got called in 2013, he actually decided to report for his citizen's duty rather than doing the celebrity thing and having his personal assistant try to figure out whom to pay off in order to get out of it, because by all accounts Hanks is, just, the best guy.
The trial went fine for about a week. Then, while on a lunch break, a member of the L.A. city attorney's office approached Hanks in a stairwell and proceeded to gush all over him about how thankful she was that someone of his stature would take time out of his busy schedule to perform jury duty, and holy wow Big was so great.
"So, can we do the song together, or would SAG have a problem with that?"
That's it. That's all it took for accusations of jury tampering to start fluttering all over the courtroom like those sick-bugs John Coffey yacks up in The Green Mile. The defense immediately called for a mistrial, and after some bickering both sides agreed to end the trial with a plea deal for disturbing the peace and a $150 slap to the defendant's bank account. Which is fortunate, because we can't fathom the emotional trauma the defendant would have suffered having to hear Hanks stand up in front of the world and declare him guilty.
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A Defense Attorney Naps Through His Client's Death Penalty Case
Back in 1983, Texan Calvin Burdine was convicted of murder and sentenced to death following a short, no-nonsense trial. After a full 10 years on death row, Burdine testified to an appellate court that his lawyer, Joe Cannon, had not only stolen his moniker from a '30s noir gumshoe but had also spent much of Burdine's six-day trial catching 40 winks.
"The court will recess for 20 minutes, during which time I advise the defense to go wash the drool stains out of his tie."
During the hearing, three jurors and even the court clerk from the original trial testified that, yeah, the guy pretty much had cartoon Zs floating above his head throughout the entire thing, presumably situating his briefcase just right to strategically hide his embarrassing sleep-boners.
According to Cannon, however, closing his eyes and tilting his head back was how he looked when he was concentrating, which you may recognize as the exact same excuse you gave the principal after sleeping off a bender in high school history class. The appeals court wasn't buying it, calling the portion of the trial that the attorney had missed "not insubstantial," which, in case you're not a lawyer yourself, means "substantial."
"Your honor, I need a moment to confer with my client, which ... is who, exactly?"
Despite all that, the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals overturned Burdine's right to a new trial, saying that he hadn't successfully shown that his attorney's sleeping through the trial had any effect on the outcome (we're no legal experts, but that sounds like a roundabout way of calling Cannon a shitty lawyer). They had to make it all the way to the Supreme Court to finally get someone to acknowledge that, while not specifically spelled out in the Sixth Amendment because it shouldn't have to be, having conscious legal representation is sort of a prerequisite to receiving a fair trial.
An Attorney Insists the Defendant Tried to Run Her Over
Buffalo, New York, Assistant District Attorney Kristi Ahlstrom was waiting to cross the street after a long day of trying to put away alleged bad guys (that day, she was doing jury selection in a rape case). There, she saw a menacing black sedan idling at a green light. Now, a driver failing to go at a green light generally only means one of three things: 1) they've fallen asleep, 2) they're finishing up a text, or 3) they're lying in wait, about to vehicularly murder themselves an assistant district attorney.
"BRB Nana. Revenging LOL!"
Unfortunately for Ahlstrom, this was a case of No. 3. Just as she stepped off the curb, the driver gunned it straight toward her, only missing her by a fraction of an inch thanks to her badass Matrix backflip and perfect three-point landing onto the sidewalk. That, or the car came within a foot or two and splashed her with some dirty water as it sped through a puddle. Our version is better.
Anyway, as the car sped away, Ahlstrom recognized the driver as none other than the disturbingly appropriately named William Payne -- the very defendant in the very rape case for which she had just spent that very day in jury selections.
The "KILL DA" novelty plates may have been a tip-off as well.
Since tossing two tons of intimidation in the general direction of the attorney prosecuting your case is a bit of a no-no, and not going when a traffic light turns green just pisses off, like, everybody, Judge Kenneth Case immediately revoked Payne's bail, sending him back to jail, and declared a mistrial. And that's when things got interesting.
See, at the same time he was allegedly going all Death Proof on Ahlstrom, Payne was riding the bus home. Defense attorney Joe Agro produced surveillance photos of either Payne or his evil (-er?) twin riding the Metro Rail, then swapping to two different buses to make his way home. Hell, he even presented proof that Payne had never even had a driver's license or owned a car. And on top of all that, a video from the attempted hit-and-run showed that the vehicle was a good 10 feet away from Ahlstrom, which perceptive readers might recognize as "about the distance between the driving lane and the sidewalk."
Further review revealed there wasn't even a road there, and the car in question was actually a large squirrel.
Payne's murderous tendencies disproven, his bail was reinstated and he was released from jail. At least until he gets a new trial due to, you know, the rape allegations.
A Lawyer Asks a Witness if He Wants a Piece of This, Because I'll Fucking Give You a Piece of This
Somewhere north of The Wall (in Canada), Shawn Anthony Vassel was on trial for attempted murder, having allegedly popped off a few rounds in the general direction of two other men. One of those targets, an ex-biker by the name of Todd Kealy, had made it abundantly clear through his testimony that, while someone had in fact shot at him, he would not be pointing any fingers in the case because he was not "a rat." Now, that simply wouldn't do for Vassel's defense attorney, Reid Rusonik -- who was somehow completely oblivious to the fact that not incriminating his client was in fact precisely the best possible thing Kealy could do for his case -- so he decided to cross-examine the witness. With his fists.
"Allow me to introduce you to my associates, Objection and Force Majeure."
Rusonik started by launching every trick he'd learned in law school at Kealy in an attempt to get him to give up the attempted killer, from staring contests to mumbling "ifyouknowwhotriedtokillyousaywhat" under his breath. None of it worked, and eventually Kealy tired of the constant barrage of questions and responded to one straight out of left field with, "If you want to put a noose around your neck, go ahead."
That was it. That was fucking it. Prosecutor Stephen Sheriff tried to register an objection, but it was drowned out by Rusonik shouting, "If you want to step outside right now we can do it the way you want to do it." The courtroom apparently erupted into chaos, which presumably translates to observers throwing gobs of poutine at one another, emphasizing each sloppy handful with "eh!" while Rusonik screamed "fuckhead!" and "you little shit!" at the witness in a manner that, we must say, strikes us as profoundly un-Canadian.
"I'm gonna kick your ass, unless you have somewhere else to be today!"
Once the melee died down, Madam Justice Nancy Mossip ordered that the two would-be brawlers could not be present in the courtroom together from that point forward, and that was that ... right up until Rusonik approached Kealy in a court hallway for another go, and the entire trial had to be tossed out like yesterday's Tim Hortons.
A Defense Attorney Is Really, Really New at This (Like, So New, You Guys)
Everyone loves a good underdog story. From Rocky to The Karate Kid, there's just something about the story of a clueless amateur rising up from the cesspool of complete inexperience to succeed against seemingly insurmountable odds (by way of beating the ever-loving crap out of some asshole) that really tugs at our heartstrings.
This is not one of those stories.
Joseph Rakofsky was that clueless amateur -- a brand-spanking-new lawyer who decided that his very first trial should be the defense of one Dontrell Deaner, a Washington, D.C., man charged with murder, because hey, why the hell not? Rakofsky, of course, was very discreet about his lack of experience for fear of it being detrimental to his client's case -- by which we mean he giddily informed the entire jury that it was his first case right in the middle of his opening statement.
"Am I doing good? Be honest. I'm trying really hard."
And speaking of his opening statement -- while most attorneys keep theirs to a minimum (a half-hour, tops), Rakofsky rambled on and on for more than an hour, repeating himself worse than your drunken uncle at Thanksgiving dinner, mostly about children "in the projects of Southeast D.C., where there was always gambling, guns, and drugs," and how "there are drugs in the projects of Southeast D.C. There are guns all the time and drugs." The judge eventually had to tell him to stop thinking of the children and just focus on the goddamn case.
The best part is that Rakofsky wasn't even licensed to practice law in D.C. -- Deaner's family looked him up on the Internet and hired him sight unseen, presumably based on Yelp reviews by people with names like "Joey Rufusky" and "Jenny Rupinsky." So Rakofsky hired D.C. lawyer Sherlock Grigsby to advise him on local law practices ... and then completely ignored every single, steaming bit of his advice. We're starting to get the impression that Rakofsky might not have been the sharpest sword in Lady Justice's shed, because the only law classes we've ever taken were taught by Sam Waterston, and even we know that you should never, ever ignore the advice of a man with a name like Sherlock Grigsby.
"Don't sweat it; My Cousin Vinny is in my Netflix queue."
But the straw that broke the criminal trial's back came in the form of an email in which Rakofsky asked an investigator involved in the case to "Please trick the old lady to say that she did not see the shooting or provide information to the lawyers about the shooting." A hearing was immediately called, in which Judge William Jackson declared a mistrial and did everything short of bending Rakofsky over his knee and spanking him with a gavel, after which Rakofsky, according to The Washington Post, "declined to comment on the case as he rushed down the escalators and out of the courthouse." We have to assume that didn't happen quite as quickly as described, since going down the up escalator tends to be a tedious process.
Marijuana Entered as Evidence (Apparently) Goes Up in Smoke
Greg Hinz was on trial for the kind of thing that courts across the country must view as mundane, crank 'em in, crank 'em out, everyday bullshit: possession of marijuana, driving while under the influence of said possessed marijuana, and failing to possess a driver's license while doing said driving while under the influence of twice-said possessed marijuana. The evidence was downright damning: a half-smoked joint and some rolling papers (in such a straightforward case, it doesn't take a whole lot of evidence to stack up to "damning").
The trial was going swimmingly -- Deputy Prosecutor Michael Held had just presented his case and entered the aforementioned doobie into evidence -- right up until Judge W. Laurence Wilson called for a lunch recess, because certain aspects of court proceedings are apparently just like elementary school. After the bell rang to return to class and courthouse aides helped a crying DA off the top of the monkey bars, everyone filed back into the courtroom to find that the marijuana and rolling papers -- which had been left in plain sight on a counter in the altogether unlocked courtroom -- were shockingly missing.
Scooby and the gang can probably stay home for this mystery.
Hinz and three of his friends (who were there for moral support, we guess?) were spotted going into the courtroom during the break, so of course search warrants were immediately obtained to give them a good once-over. Maybe even a twice-over. However, it was all for naught -- the pot had, quite simply, disappeared. The judge declared a mistrial for the drug charges, and the two-day trial (which likely resulted in thousands of dollars in court costs) ended with Hinz being charged with driving without a license.
The defendant constantly giggling and quoting Half Baked probably didn't help matters.
"How could this infinitely still-smokable evidence possibly have vanished so completely?!" court officials presumably exclaimed while overdramatically throwing their hands into the air, even as Hinz and co. probably crammed fistfuls of Cheetos into their face holes to quell their uncontrollable giggling. OK, there's no evidence that the guys smoked the evidence (even if they were guilty of tampering with said evidence, they could just as easily have dropped by the restroom and flushed it). But come on. You know damned well that somebody smoked that shit.
For more ridiculous things in our justice system, check out 7 Ridiculous Cases Where Animals Were Put On Trial and 5 Stupid Juries That Prove the Justice System Is Broken.