Category Archives: Criminal Law

When truth is stranger than fiction: a revenge plot foiled

Sometimes the truth is stranger than fiction. Or at least would make good fiction.

Straight from the pages of the New York Times comes this story about rape, revenge, conspiracy, mistaken identity, and an innocent wrongly accused. It’s definitely good enough for an episode of Castle, if not for one of Dick Wolfe’s many iterations of  Law and Order.

It started when Seemona Sumasar, a young restaurant owner in New York, met Jerry Ramrattan in her restaurant. He said he was a police detective, and they hit it off, began dating, and soon he moved into her place. However, from there the relationship went south. Seemona asked him to move out. Not only would he not, but she claims that he one day cornered her, duck taped her mouth shut, and raped her.

Then it gets weird. After she accused him of rape, and he released on bond, Ramrattan began to get his revenge, sending friends to intimidate her. Not only that, they threatened that he would see her put in jail in his place.

It worked.

One night, Ms. Sumasar was pulled over by the police. Before she could speak, detectives slapped handcuffs on her. “You know you did it,” she said one later shouted at her. “Just admit it.”

Just like that, and suddenly Seemona was a criminal.

Booked on charges of armed robbery, police arrested her “based on what the police said was a wealth of evidence, including credible witness statements and proof that her car was the getaway vehicle.” With bail set at $1 million, the plot would not unravel until just before Sumasar was supposed to go to trial in December of 2010 when a fake witness  finally confessed to the police.

The key to his scheme, prosecutors [of Ramrattan] said, was to spread fake clues over time, fooling police into believing that all the evidence pointed to Ms. Sumasar.

They said he coached the supposed victims, driving them past Ms. Sumasar’s house so that they could describe her Jeep Grand Cherokee and showing them her photo so they could pick her out of a police lineup.

The setup began in September 2009, prosecutors said. An illegal immigrant from Trinidad told the police that he had been handcuffed and robbed of $700 by an Indian woman who was disguised as a police officer and had a gun, according to court documents.

Prosecutors said Mr. Ramrattan had persuaded the immigrant to lie, telling him that he could receive a special visa for victims of violent crimes.

Six months later, another man said he had been robbed in Nassau County by two police impersonators and described the main aggressor as an Indian woman about Ms. Sumasar’s height. The man said he had managed to take down the first three letters of the Jeep Grand Cherokee’s New York license plate — AJD.

The final fake crime was conjured in May 2010, officials said, when an acquaintance of Mr. Ramrattan said she had been held up by a couple posing as police officers. She said they were driving a Grand Cherokee, but she gave a full Florida license plate number.

She said she heard the pair call each other by name — “Seem” and “Elvis.” Elvis was the nickname of another former boyfriend of Ms. Sumasar, who owned the Jeep.

When the police looked into the Florida plate number, they found that the day after the purported March robbery, the title and the plate for the Cherokee had been transferred from Elvis to Ms. Sumasar’s sister in Florida.

Ms. Sumasar, who holds a Florida driver’s license, had driven the car to Florida to register it. To the police, she seemed to be covering her tracks.

 If “[h]ell hath no fury like a woman scorned,” then I don’ t know what you would say about Ramrattan. As a result of his insidious revenge, Seemona has changed her number, uses credit cards instead of cash to provide a papertrail to back her up, and checks with New York State’s Rikers Prison web site each day to assure that Ramrattan has not been released. If Ramrattan’s plot has failed and backfired, he’s still managed to extract a revenge that will continue to haunt Seemona down the road.

Worse, I don’t know what you could say about law enforcement in this case, either. Not only did they get the wrong guy, but they let a ‘Law and Order’ junkie manipulate them into arresting the victim at the perp’s behest. That’s worse than justice blind justice–that’s incompetent justice.

Find the story at “A Revenge Plot So Intricate, the Prosecutors were Pawns” in the New York Times.

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Smart: ‘I know that you know what you did was wrong’ | The Salt Lake Tribune

Brian David Mitchell has been sentenced to life.

“I don’t have very much to say to you,” [Elizabeth Smart] said as Mitchell sat with his eyes closed, hands clasped and singing softly. “I know exactly what you did. I know that you know what you did was wrong. You did it with a full knowledge. I also want you to know that I have a wonderful life now, that no matter what you do, it will not affect me again. You took away nine months of my life that can never be returned, but in this life or next, you will have to be held responsible for those actions, and I hope you are ready for when that time comes.”

via Smart: ‘I know that you know what you did was wrong’ | The Salt Lake Tribune.

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Tweets aside, should Utah’s attorney general be appointed?

Mark Shurtleff, Utah Attorney General, is the first in Utah history to be elected to three terms.

Should the attorney general be appointed by the chief executive of the state? Or should states continue to elect their lead legal adviser and prosecutor?

Utah, along with forty-three other states, elects the state’s attorney general in a general election along side other statewide offices, such as governor, lieutenant governor, and so on. The attorney general’s job, according to the office’s site, is to “enforce the law, provide counsel to state agencies and public officials, to work with law enforcement and protect the interests of Utah, its people, environment and resources.”

Mark Shurtleff, Utah Attorney General

Utah’s current attorney general is Mark Shurtleff, first elected in 2000 and later reelected in 2004 and 2008, the first AG in Utah history to receive three terms. Each time, he has been reelected by large margins, walking away with about 69% of the vote in 2008.

Despite this level of popularity, though, Shurtleff has not won everyone’s friendship. Further, his willingness to take campaign contributions from groups that were in the midst of prosecution has raised questions about his objectivity.

One example of this was reported in the Salt Lake City Weekly story “Called Into Question.”  A call center that pushed questionable real estate products, Mentoring for America (or MOA) was investigated and cited between 2004 and 2007 for because it “promised unrealistic guarantees to customers, sold them programs they couldn’t use and otherwise conducted deceptive trade practices.” In 2008, it was under investigation, again.

Around the same time, Shurtleff received $20,000 in donations to his campaign. According to City Weekly:

 …on Jan. 16, 2008, almost a month after it received its most recent charges from the state, MOA contributed $20,000 to Attorney General Mark Shurtleff’s 2008 re-election campaign. Three months after the charges were dropped by the Utah Division of Consumer Protection, Shurtleff would bank another $10,000 from the company, according to MOA’s PAC report.

In total, the Shurtleff campaign received $187,000 in donations from seven Utah call centers in 2008, six of which were under investigation by the Division of Consumer Protection. The litany of complaints against MOA, and the slap on the hand that it received, is heartbreaking.

When asked about the conflict of interest created by receiving donations from people and companies that are under investigation, Shurtleff was frank and honest: it’s complicated and it’s burdensome.

He said starting to draw lines among legal donors might create a need to do background checks on all donors. “I couldn’t take money from individuals without a background check,” he said.

Shurtleff also said that he’s never had a problem prosecuting donors.

“I have prosecuted and sued companies that have given me money,” he said. “Despite all the innuendo and rumors … there has never been and never will be a documented case of pay-to-play, tit-for-tat” favors for contributions.

The Idea: Appoint the Attorney General 

Regardless of Shurtleff’s intent, it has raised the question about whether the office should stay elective or whether it should be made appointive.  Utah State Senator Steve Urquhart of St. George recently floated the idea that–to allow the attorney general to avoid the appearance of impropriety due to campaign donations–the position should be appointed by the governor, similar to how the President appoints the U.S. Attorney General.

Not only would the state attorney general be free from the need to collect campaign donations, but would also work in closer cooperation with the Governor in setting priorities.

The feds do it and it seems to make sense,” Urquhart said in an article in the Salt Lake Tribune.

“I also think it’s much cleaner if the guy making prosecutorial decisions isn’t out soliciting money from people who could be impacted by those decisions,” Urquhart said.

The flaw in the idea, as Shurtleff quickly pointed out, is that the attorney general needs to be a check on the executive branch, as well. By limiting the attorney general’s independence–making it responsive to the governor and the legislature instead of voters–changes the nature of the prosecutor’s office to little more than corporate counsel to the Governor.

“If there’s any misdeed or malfeasance in the executive branch then I’m responsible to the people to take action,” Shurtleff said.

Public Policy? Or a Grudge?

If this were just a policy discussion, then Sen. Urquhart would have had the legislative office attorneys look at it, he’d propose a constitutional amendment (which is what the change would require), and the state legislature would have voted on it next year.

But it’s not just a policy discussion. Apparently Steve and Mark don’t get along very well. The attorney general went ad hominem  and attributed Sen. Urquhart’s suggestion to personal ambition, not public policy.

“We know he has an interest in this job,” Shurtleff said, adding Urquhart’s only hope would be through an appointment. “I think he can’t get elected statewide.”

Never one to miss an opportunity, Sen. Urquhart had some fun with Shurtleff’s snark.

When @hollyonthehill called his bluff, asking for a picture, Urquhart folded, making a jab at Shurtleff’s accidental tweet of 2009 announcing his intention to run for the US Senate.

___________

Jabs and accidental tweets aside, the question remains: should the attorney general be an independent elected official or should he, as in the federal system, be appointed?

Elected or Appointed, the Attorney General Should Be Impartial

Both options have merits that merit consideration and with the race to replace Mark Shurtleff kicking off this year, voters should closely examine the candidates for their willingness to maintain not only independence, but impartiality. Candidates for attorney general should be asked who their donors are and how they will be independent from influence by those donors.

While Shurtleff is correct to note that statewide races are expensive, it is also notable that he has won each race, including his first election, by margins more than 20 percent higher than his Democratic opponents. It’s hard to justify taking money from questionable donors when clearly there is not a need for it.

Further, the chief prosecutor should be above suspicion. Taking so much money from questionable donors should result in concerns by voters about the ability of the attorney general to exercise prosecutorial discretion in voters’ interests, not his own. Whether Shurtleff acts with impartiality or not becomes a moot point when so much money is accepted from so many parties that should be receiving the full inspection of the state’s chief prosecutor.

For more in the press on this issue, see also:

When Jury met Google…

Image representing Google as depicted in Crunc...
Image via CrunchBase

GOOGLE + JURIES = PROBLEMS?

Under the constitution, an “impartial jury” is guaranteed in criminal trials. However, with the advent of the internet, Google, and online social media, impartiality is becoming more questionable, and jurors are taking over their role as fact finders out of the court room and directly to online searches.

And it has observers wondering if an “impartial jury” is even possible, anymore. With technology continually evolving, the justice system will need to find ways to compensate, argues Caren Myers  Morrison, an assistant professor at Georgia State University College of Law in an article titled Can the Jury Trial Survive Google? published the ABA’s Criminal Justice Winter 2011 issue.

Today, most jurors have access to news stories, television segments, blogs “opinions,” criminal records databases, social network pages, and general research tools such as Wikipedia and Google at their fingertips. And the have not been shy about availing themselves of these resources.

In addition to steps to compensate for heightened juror access to information outside of the trial, Morrison suggests that “we may need to reevaluate the jury’s role in a wider sense.”

I’ve heard it joked that people on jury duty are not the brightest individuals, as evidenced that if they were they would have gotten out of jury duty in the first place. John Cusack starred with Gene Hackman and Dustin Hoffman in the movie version of John Grisham‘s novel Runaway Jury, in which Cusack played man who got himself placed on jury duty, where he then manipulated the other members of the jury to get revenge on an unscrupulous gun manufacturer. It featured black and white caricatures, but the lesson was real–juries can be manipulated by sophisticated individuals using expert knowledge of the facts and of the law.

In Grisham’s world, the good guys won, but in the real world, it isn’t nearly so black and white. The rules of evidence are designed to keep a tight lid on attorneys in court, to assure a level playing field, as best as possible, with the power of the state and prosecutor on one side and the rights of the defendant, presumed innocent until proven guilty, on the other. As jurors are able to begin accessing information outside of those guarded limits, “impartiality” becomes an open question.

Unfortunately, that doesn’t mean that jurors will always feel like they are getting enough information to do their job competently. As quoted by Morrison:

“The legal system is not designed to discover truth, but rather to reward whichever party presents the most convincing argument,” observed one former juror. “As someone who has sat on several juries, in each case myself and the other jurors felt frustrated by the lack of key information that would help us feel comfortable that we had made the right decision. We also felt deeply frustrated at our inability to fill those gaps in our knowledge.”

So, with that frustration in hand, jurors head home at night, open their laptops, and start Googling. That is, when they haven’t already started searching from their mobile phones while still in court.

WHAT ARE THE PROBLEMS?

Morrison lists several problems for the impartial jury due to easy access to the internet.

  • First, juror blog postings, status updates, and tweets “might chill robust discussion inside the jury room.” Why speak up if your fellow jurors are going to lam-blast you online?
  • Second, jurors use the internet to ask for opinions. It’s a violation of the jurors oath, even if it does occur only rarely.
  • Third, messages from inside the juror “black box” dispels and “subvert[s] the gravity of the process.”
Another major problem, one well demonstrated by “Runaway Jury,” is improper contacts with jurors. Facebook, MySpace, eHarmony, and Twitter all present ways that jurors can be contacted, and can contact, defendants, witnesses, and attorneys associated with the case, to say nothing of the media.
The more people are linked through a complex of contacts, listservs, dating databases, and friend pages, the more these chance encounters become likely, causing not only the embarrassment of seeing trial participants in unexpected contexts, but also possible prejudice to the parties. Who could take an expert seriously after learning that he is looking for “that special someone”?
RECOMMENDATIONS
There are several suggestions that Morrison presents to these problems, though she states that their efficacy is still open:
  1. Jury Instructions: specifically advise jurors that they are, as the Federal Judicial Conference has modeled, not to access the Internet using their telephone, cell phone, smart phone, iPhone, Blackberry or computer, nor to chat about the case in chat rooms, blogs, or websites such as Facebook, My Space, LinkedIn, YouTube or Twitter…etc., etc., etc.
  2. Explain why. If jurors understand, they are more likely to listen and heed the instructions.
  3. For extremely short trials, confiscate electronic devices as jurors enter the courthouse. However, this won’t help in any case that last more than one day.
  4. Allow jurors to take notes, ask questions of the witnesses, and request clarification. Questions can be written and submitted to the judge to ask, and they can help jurors feel more able to get access to the information they need to make a judgment.
  5. Zero tolerance for juror contacts. The threat of fine or contempt of court should be a fair and sufficient method for keeping jurors from making inappropriate contacts during trial.
Morrison’s article “Can the Jury Trial Survive Google?” is a fascinating look at the problems juries face in the age of Google. It shares a wealth of anecdotes and insights. It’s not available online yet, but should be in the next couple months. Morrison also has an excellent paper on the topic here.

We are all just pawns: moral ambivalence & criminal offenses in the Clinton Cabinet

General Hugh Shelton

I read a startling story yesterday. Former Joint Chiefs of Staff retired General Hugh Shelton says in his memoir that in 1997 a Clinton cabinet member suggested letting Saddam Hussein shoot down a U2 spy plane to create a ruse to go to war against Iraq. It would  provide for international sympathy and justification the Clinton Administration felt it needed for a war.

It’s a chilling accusation, if true: leaders of the executive branch using an U.S. airman to start a war. Jonathan Turley notes that the crimes that the cabinet member could (should?) be charged with “begin with murder before moving on to conspiracy, false statements, and a host of international offenses. They would also constitute impeachable acts.” And, he goes on to say, the Justice Department has prosecuted others for less.

Salon quotes the passage from Shelton’s book:

Early on in my days as Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, we had small, weekly White House breakfasts in National Security Advisor Sandy Berger’s office that included me, Sandy, Bill Cohen (Secretary of Defense), Madeleine Albright (Secretary of State), George Tenet (head of the CIA), Leon Firth (VP chief of staff for security), Bill Richardson (ambassador to the U.N.), and a few other senior administration officials. These were informal sessions where we would gather around Berger’s table and talk about concerns over coffee and breakfast served by the White House dining facility. It was a comfortable setting that encouraged brainstorming of potential options on a variety of issues of the day.

During that time we had U-2 aircraft on reconnaissance sorties over Iraq. These planes were designed to fly at extremely high speeds and altitudes (over seventy thousand feet) both for pilot safety and to avoid detection.

At one of my very first breakfasts, while Berger and Cohen were engaged in a sidebar discussion down at one end of the table and Tenet and Richardson were preoccupied in another, one of the Cabinet members present leaned over to me and said, “Hugh, I know I shouldn’t even be asking you this, but what we really need in order to go in and take out Saddam is a precipitous event — something that would make us look good in the eyes of the world. Could you have one of our U-2s fly low enough — and slow enough — so as to guarantee that Saddam could shoot it down?”

The hair on the back of my neck bristled, my teeth clenched, and my fists tightened. I was so mad I was about to explode. I looked across the table, thinking about the pilot in the U-2 and responded, “Of course we can …” which prompted a big smile on the official’s face.

“You can?” was the excited reply.

“Why, of course we can,” I countered. “Just as soon as we get your ass qualified to fly it, I will have it flown just as low and slow as you want to go.”

The official reeled back and immediately the smile disappeared. “I knew I should not have asked that….”

“No, you should not have,” I strongly agreed, still shocked at the disrespect and sheer audacity of the question. “Remember, there is one of our great Americans flying that U-2, and you are asking me to intentionally send him or her to their death for an opportunity to kick Saddam. The last time I checked, we don’t operate like that here in America.”

Salon states that the way the story was told, the person could not have been Berger or Cohen, which leaves Albright and the other cabinet members as possible candidates.

(h/t JonathanTurley.org and Salon.com)