This was the headline, and accompanying photograph, seen after our recent hearing in the Mineral County, WV felony prosecution of John and Tonya Cozatt. They are being prosecuted for several felonies for selling potpourri in their nutrition stores which allegedly contained “synthetic marijuana”. The newspaper just couldn’t resist labeling the products as “Bath Salts”, which of course have been all over the national news due to incidents such as the face-eating incident in Florida.
The actual article makes it clear that the case has nothing to do with “bath salts”. But if you look at the link I provided above under the photograph, you can see how they mentioned “Bath Salts” or “Salts” in three different areas surrounding the article. It’s like the media labeling every gun, regardless of what it actually is, an “AK-47″ or an “assault rifle.” In the end, it poisons the jury pool. In all of these pre-trial articles, people are seeing “bath salts, bath salts, bath salts.” And in the national media they are seeing endless stories on people on bath salts doing crazy things. Is it really necessary to sensationalize something that is innocuous as a nutrition store selling potpourri? As the article notes, law enforcement had no idea the potpourri may have contained illegal compounds prior to having it analyzed by a laboratory:
Attorney John H. Bryan, representing the Cozatts, questioned Paterline about the packaging of the substance, noting that none of the packages said it was synthetic marijuana or meant to be smoked.
Bryan also asked Paterline if he could tell when he purchased the substances if they were illegal or not, and he said he could not.
An article in the West Virginia Record commented on several West Virginia Supreme Court Justices, Justices Ketchum and Davis in particular, giving an attorney a “tough time” during oral arguments:
The examination of Attorney L. during oral arguments was so one-sided that Ketchum even suggested to attorney Thomas M., who represented Pullman and Structural, not say anything that would lose him the case.
And when Tiffany D., who was arguing for Ershigs, reminded the justices that the party harmed by the sanctions was AEP and not the law firms that handled the case, Ketchum responded, “You don’t think AEP has a nice malpractice suit against their lawyers?”
This brought back memories. I was once before the WVSC for oral arguments and my opponent was given a really “tough time”. After they finished, they told him to sit down, pointed at me, and told me to stand up, it was my turn. I looked at them and said, “your honors, I think I’ll just quit while I’m ahead.” One of the same Justices said “I think that’s a good idea”. So I basically just sat down.
A couple of weeks ago I posted about a criminal case in Greenbrier County in which we obtained an outright dismissal less than a week prior to the felony jury trial. It was in the news this morning that state legislators are seeking to create a new law in response to the case:
This video is great. It shows the anti-gun and ignorant Bray Cary, with the State Journal, absolutely owned by Keith Morgan, of the West Virginia Citizens Defense League. Bravo!
The State Journal’s website offered this promo for the segment:
DECISION MAKERS: Bray Cary takes on the gun rights debate
On this week’s edition of The State Journal’s Decision Makers, host Bray Cary takes on the need for semi-automatic weapons with Keith Morgan with the West Virginia Citizens Defense League.
Thank you Mr. Cary for taking on our “need” for semi-automatic weapons. I hope you learned something in your embarrassing display of ignorance and arrogance. While you’re at it, are there other constitutional rights you feel that we don’t need? Do we really need the First Amendment with people like you on television?
Unfortunately we lost at jury trial. But we just received an order from the Federal Judge overturning the jury verdict and granting judgment in our favor. There will be a new trial to determine damages. Yes!
Update: Link to newspaper article.
2nd Update: Gazette article by Zac Taylor. Some excerpts:
In his order filed Friday afternoon, Goodwin recalled the Los Angeles riots in 1991, sparked after a jury acquitted Los Angeles police officers in the beating of Rodney King despite video footage of the incident.
“The public had seen the tape. The Los Angeles riots ensued,” Goodwin wrote in the order. “Here and now, as there and then, the jury did what they thought was right but simply got it wrong.”
The judge said that law enforcement officers are constitutionally prohibited from inflicting “unnecessary and wanton pain and suffering” on detainees. He said that case law also prohibits officers from using physical force in response to chatter from detainees.
. . .
“The video clearly shows Deputy Asbury punching Mr. Sawyer in the face,” Goodwin wrote, “with the force of his blow knocking Mr. Sawyer’s face to the side.”
. . .
Asbury resumed choking Sawyer. The deputies then took Sawyer to the floor, went out of view for the camera for a short period before returning, and leaving the man on the floor, Goodwin said.
Sawyer stayed on the floor while the officers apparently went on with other tasks, Goodwin said. After a while, Sawyer managed to sit up. He was later taken to the hospital with a fractured nose.. . .
During the trial, Sawyer’s lawyer, John H. Bryan, asked the judge to make a ruling on the case based on the video. Goodwin said that he had “grave concerns” that the testimony of the officers involved contradicted the footage.
“I said in response to the motion that I was reminded of the Marx Brothers’ ‘Duck Soup’ movie, in which the heiress confronts Chico Marx dressed as Groucho and says ‘I saw’, and he replies ‘Who are you going to believe, me or your own eyes?’ ” the judge wrote.
TV News article.
The Tim Mazza lawsuit, which was pending in the U.S. District Court in the Southern District of West Virginia, is now settled. In police lawsuit cases, the settlements are not necessarily confidential. This case was settled for $100,000.00. Another case involving two of the same officers was settled a couple months prior for $70,000.00.
Link to a news story on the Mazza settlement.
Link to a news story on the Ratliff settlement.
The funny thing in this case is that from day one, in the newspapers, the mayor and police chief blamed us lawyers and tort reform in general. They publicly announced that they would not be settling this case and that they would handle the matter in court. Of course this had to be addressed once the decision to settle was made. In the News and Sentinel article announcing the settlement, they blamed the decision to settle on their insurer.
If I could get an insurer to settle a frivolous case for 100 grand just to avoid the time and expense of litigation, I wouldn’t be so picky about which cases to accept.
I have posted before about the danger that ignorant media coverage poses to criminal cases – especially TV news coverage. The reporting is just awful. One particular local channel brags that they are helping law enforcement clean up the criminals out of our community. In reality, they are just posting mugshots and reading law enforcement press releases.
I was in court yesterday for a pretrial hearing in a high profile southern WV case. Up to that point, the media had not appeared at the prior court hearings – most likely because they didn’t know about them. Somebody had apparently tipped them off about the hearing taking place. Some prosecutors, when they realize that their plea offer is not going to be accepted and that they are going to have to try the case, will get the media involved which effectively poisons the jury pool.
The TV news crew filmed the hearing, obviously taking careful notes about what was being said (I say that sarcastically). Instead of broadcasting the audio from the hearing, they substituted their reporter’s voice, which was completely misstating the substance of the hearing. Then, as my client and I were leaving the courtroom, they ambushed us putting cameras and microphones in our faces. The reporter asked, “what do you want to tell the victim’s family?”
The funny thing about this is that 30 minutes earlier we were all quietly sitting in the courtroom, along with other attorneys and defendants, waiting for the judge to appear. They had every opportunity to film my client at that time. They had every opportunity to request an interview or a statement, or whatever. They had every opportunity to ask questions about where the case was heading. I’m not saying they would have gotten any information from us, but they made no attempt. They are obviously not interested in the facts, just sensationalism.
Several years ago, and again recently, I discussed my frustration at the lack of impartial coverage of high profile criminal cases in West Virginia by TV news media. If you watch our local news around here you will notice two things: lots of mugshots and lots of interviews of police officers. That’s just about all you will see. Of course there are two sides to every story, but you will never, never hear them. You will only hear the law enforcement side.
Recently I became involved in just such a case. The media got involved and started broadcasting stories that just did not portray the situation accurately. They were causing a big stink and provoking people to call the prosecutor and law enforcement to demand that the book be thrown at my client.
The client is a good person; well-liked by just about everybody who knows him. He has never been in trouble before. He was studying to become a police officer. In fact, he was days away from getting a job as a police officer when the news station decided to ruin his life. He was volunteering at a local school with the marching band. He has a concealed weapon permit and had a pistol in his truck. His truck broke down on school property and he had to hitch a ride home with a friend. So he made the mistake of taking the pistol out of his truck and taking it with him. He made the further mistake of showing his friend the pistol as he was taking it out.
Subsequently, the principal was apparently reviewing surveillance footage of the school grounds, and observed the gun. Band director gets fired for having an unauthorized volunteer. The media picks up on it, and eventually people think we have just narrowly-avoided a Columbine incident. A crazy man wielding a gun at a local school. Somebody has to pay.
I encountered the TV reporter in the courthouse. She informed me that she had uncovered the identity of the gun-wielding volunteer and was going to run a story on it that evening. I then offered to give an interview to try and set the record straight. So I did, and I explained the accurate circumstances, on video. Of course when the story was run that night there was a lengthy interview of a sheriff’s deputy explaining that my client had committed a felony and they were going to charge him for it. They also broadcasted his name, age, and the location of his residence. And that was it. Nothing else. No explanation from me. They chose not to include any of my interview. Of course I wasn’t surprised. That is how it usually goes. When your client is charged they show his mugshot and broadcast his name and other information. When he is acquitted it goes unmentioned.
The reason is this: if viewers were to hear my explanation, they would say, “Oh, what’s the big deal about that? They are going to charge this kid with a felony and ruin his life over that?” The story would lose its sensationalism.
Certainly the argument could be made that law enforcement and the prosecutor have no choice. The guy was caught on video possessing a firearm (unloaded) on school property. There is a statute in West Virginia that makes it a felony, with a 2 to 10 prison sentence and no opportunity at probation or parole for possessing a gun on school property, whether or not unloaded, or on any property upon which a school function is occurring. To contrast that with other crimes, that is the same penalty for wanton endangerment with a firearm, which is like shooting a gun at somebody and missing. Brandishing a firearm, which is like pointing a gun at somebody but not firing, is only a misdemeanor with a maximum sentence of one year. So to a certain extent we can blame the legislature for creating an overbroad and unfair law. And I do blame them. Most of them are too cowardly to stand up for common sense and freedom. Attach a school or domestic violence to any vice or allegation of misconduct, and you end up with a capital crime. But I think there is also a place for mercy.
The police do not have to charge, and the prosecutor does not have to prosecute. They have that discretion notwithstanding the legislature. Not every crime has to be punished – nor should it be. Many people would disagree with that. But let those persons throw the first stones who have not themselves committed a crime without being caught or without punishment. In the end it is up to people like me to be the voice of reason to a jury. We are the last and best hope and saving the lives of good people like this young man. It is a heavy burden. You will see things differently when it is your son or daughter, who is a good person, but who has made some sort of mistake and ends up on the receiving end of the criminal justice system. It’s not hard to do. There are so many criminal laws that I do not know them all. Do you think this kid thought that he may have been committing a felony when he took the gun out of his truck? Of course not, yet we are ruining his life as a result. There is a place for mercy and compassion in the court system. But no legislator, prosecutor, sheriff, or judge gets elected by promising mercy and compassion.
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