The murder of a prosecutor

Here on Law & Fiction, I like to take the news and suggest ways writers can use it in their fiction.

But this story is too awful. Mark Hasse, a prosecutor in a town outside Dallas, was shot and killed Thursday morning near the courthouse, by two men wearing masks and protective vests. Here’s the latest account from the Dallas Morning News, and another from the New York Times (which may require a sign-in).  Mr. Hasse was 57, the lead felony prosecutor in Kaufman County. Local officials agree that it looks like a targeted killing, but can’t yet confirm that.

As I have said here before, I really wish I was making this up. Please keep his family, friends, and co-workers in your thoughts.

Fatal Obsession — the real thing

I’ve been fascinated — and horrified — by accounts of this tragic case, in which an elderly Florida man became obsessed with a brilliant Montana teenager. Their only connection: a shared Greek heritage. The man became convinced that the girl’s mother was holding her back and keeping her from developing her talents — to the point that in January 2011, he came to Montana and confronted the girl. She obtained a restraining order. Five days later, he went to the family’s home and shot the mother, severely injuring her. The girl called 911, and with sheriff’s deputies on the phone, stopped the shooting by shielding her mother. Park County Sheriff’s deputies arrived. The man pointed his gun at them and they shot, killing him.

Mother and daughter sued his estate in Montana federal court for monetary damages for their physical and emotional injuries, and for punitive damages.  Defense attorneys admitted the shooting and liability, but claimed he was insane at the time. A Florida judge recently approved a settlement with the man’s estate. This recap comes from the Billings Gazette and Associated Press; see the list of related stories at the bottom for more.

Once again, I wish I was making this up.

The Saturday Writing Quotes — on Reading!

A Saturday in winter is just made for reading — and all writers must be readers, too.

“Reading is to the mind what exercise is to the body.” — Joseph Addison, English essayist and more, 1672-1719

“Read the best books first, or you may not have a chance to read them all.” — Henry David Thoreau, American writer and philosopher, 1817-62

“Hold a book in your hand and you’re a pilgrim at the gates of a new city.” — Anne Michaels, Canadian poet and novelist (born 1958), in her novel Fugitive Pieces, citing a Hebrew saying

Justice in a cold case

Some of my favorite mysteries and other novels feature “cold cases” – those unsolved cases that haunt detectives and the families of the victims. Two that come to mind are Stephen White’s Cold Case (2000) and Laura Lippman’s The Most Dangerous Thing (2011).

This story from the Seattle Times about an ex-cop from Seattle convicted of a long-ago murder in Illinois has all the elements of a good cold-case crime novel – except that it’s all too real, and the families affected will never forget.

Short version: In 1957, in a small town in Illinois, 7 year old Maria Ridulph vanished, her body found five months later after a national search. Those things didn’t happen then — at least, we didn’t think they did. Police investigated intensely–and even questioned a 17 year old neighbor boy, whose mother gave him an alibi. In 1994, on her death bed, the mother confessed to her daughter that she had lied to protect her son. (The two were half-siblings.) In 2008, the daughter finally told police, who opened the cold case, and in 2011, arrested the man in Seattle. He had changed his name and moved west shortly after the murder, working as police officer south of Seattle. At the time of his arrest, he was married, retired, and working as a security guard. He denied any involvement in the crime.

Not an easy case to prosecute, but helped enormously by testimony of an eye-witness–8 at the time of the crime–identifying the defendant’s teenage photo as the boy she’d seen the victim with shortly before the disappearance. The jury convicted him in September 2012. His sister cried and apologized that it took so long. In December, he was sentenced to life in prison. At 73, it won’t be a long sentence. (Illinois abolished the death penalty in March 2011, after a long history of abuses.)

Illinois papers say it’s probably the the oldest solved cold case in American history.

Cold cases are truly chilling. How can your characters do them justice?

Terminology alert

A recent newspaper story claimed that a family had “won a settlement” in a suit against the Montana Department of Natural Resources and Conservation for damage done to their land by a scorching, and allegedly unnecessary, backfire the DNRC set. The story then mentioned the jury award.

Wait. What was it–a settlement or a jury award? Know your terms! A settlement is a voluntary agreement reached by the parties, to resolve the dispute between them. For example, in an auto accident, the defendant driver–or more likely, his insurance company–pays the plaintiff an agreed-on amount of money. In exchange, the plaintiff executes a written release of all claims against the defendant arising out of the accident. If a lawsuit has been filed, the lawyers sign a joint stipulation to dismiss the case.  In a contract dispute, the terms may be more complex; e.g., a building contractor who sues for nonpayment may get paid, but will also be required to release any liens he filed against the property, and the payment he obtains may be less than he demanded, if the property owner claims that the work was defective. In business litigation, the written settlement agreements can be extensive.

The parties and their lawyers may negotiate the settlement agreement themselves or participate in a mediation or settlement conference, with a lawyer who is not involved in the case serving as mediator or settlement master. The mediator serves as Henry Kissinger conducting shuttle diplomacy–going back and forth between the two sides, conveying offers and demands, offering his or her own evaluation, and helping the parties see reason and find common ground. If a lawyer views the case differently than his or her client does, a skillful mediator may be particularly useful. Settlement conferences are mandatory in many jurisdictions, before trial and on appeal. I’ve served as an appellate mediator many times.

(The criminal counterpart is a plea agreement–which must be approved by the judge.)

Yes, a settlement is a victory of sorts–for all parties–because it buys peace and ends the litigation, but saying a party “won” implies prevailing at trial.

Say that the parties “reached a settlement.”

You’ll be right, and I’ll be happy.

Lawyers behaving badly — make that feloniously

I occasionally post about lawyers or judges behaving badly. This case may just be the worst. A 47 year old Seattle lawyer is charged with seven felonies, including four counts of rape in attacks against several women, all massage therapists or massage clinic employees. At least one attack is alleged to have been at knifepoint. In another, he allegedly raped a clinic cashier in her car after falsely identifying himself as a police officer. All victims were of Asian descent, and one article says they may have had limited English; that makes me wonder whether they were chosen in part because of their vulnerability, and raises the possibility of an enhanced sentence, if he is convicted.

Needless to say, his wife–a city prosecutor–has filed for separation, and his law firm quickly disassociated him and reformed without him. Safe to say that if convicted of any felony counts, he will be disbarred. (There’s a discussion of grounds for disbarrment and other forms of discipline in Books, Crooks and Counselors, in the Legal Ethics chapter.)

Here’s the latest account from the Seattle Times; see the “Related Articles” in the sidebar for more.

I really, really wish I was making this up.

Case of double homicide after restraining order denied goes to trial

Last winter, I wrote about a double homicide in Helena, Montana, in which a woman named Michelle Gable entered her estranged husband Joe’s apartment and shot and killed him and a woman. Joe had applied for a restraining order, unsuccessfully.  The Billings Gazette reports that the trial starts this week, and that Gable will argue justifiable force, although there is also a possibility of an argument of “extreme emotional distress.”

Stay tuned.