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Sometimes it’s personal

This may not be the most well-thought-out post I’ve ever written. I never really intended this blog to be a place for personal thoughts, but sometimes the personal and the legal intersect. I have spent the past few weeks trying to ignore a criminal trial going on down in San Antonio, because I did not trust my ability to keep my cool about it. This is why we make sure jury members do not personally know the people involved in a trial, and why lawyers generally should not represent people with whom they have emotional involvement (when it’s a serious issue).

I just got an e-mail linking to the following news article (excerpted):

Jurors filtered out of a courtroom packed to capacity Thursday afternoon and began deliberating the fate of Alamo Heights resident Jon Thomas Ford, who is accused of strangling his ex-girlfriend and killing her dog in the first hours of 2009.

If convicted, Ford, 43, could face up to life in prison for the murder of Dana Clair Edwards, 32, who had broken up with him three months earlier.

During three hours of closing arguments Thursday, defense attorney Dick DeGuerin repeatedly referred to the prosecution’s own admission at the outset of the trial more than three weeks ago that the San Antonio Police Department “screwed up” the investigation.

DeGuerin pointed to what he characterized as untrustworthy witnesses, faulty DNA analysis, indecisive surveillance video, a “ridiculous” proposed timeline purporting to show how his client committed the crime, an incomplete autopsy and an unreliable investigation swayed by small-town rumors and intense pressure from the victim’s parents.

“This is a circumstantial evidence case,” DeGuerin said as he accused the lead detective of having a “blind focus” on Ford at the expense of all evidence to the contrary. “Circumstantial evidence has to answer all your questions.”


Prosecutor Catherine Babbitt accused DeGuerin of trying to confuse and distract jurors by focusing on individual pieces of evidence in a vacuum instead of viewing them as a whole.

“It’s common-sensical. It’s not rocket science. It’s putting pieces of evidence together,” she said. “But they don’t want you to do that.”

While not obligated to give a motive, Babbitt speculated that Ford had hoped to re-spark the relationship with Edwards in recent weeks and was rebuffed. Perhaps, she said, he snapped after he was teased at a New Year’s Eve party about disinterest in marriage.

“If you keep stuffing and stuffing and stuffing (emotions away), what happens? It explodes,” Babbitt said, referring to defense testimony from Wednesday that friends had never seen Ford angry in decades of knowing him. Babbitt also played for jurors a portion of Ford’s interview with police in which he said, “I cannot think of anyone who did not like her.” At the crime scene, no valuables were taken and she was not raped, Babbitt said.

“This is a very personal crime,” she said, pointing to a poster-sized picture of Edwards and her dog. “The only thing the killer wanted was these two. If not him, who?”

The defense had emphasized earlier that it isn’t Ford’s burden to find the real killer. Cases often go unsolved for years, DeGuerin said. His client declined to testify.

If Ford is convicted, jurors in the 186th state District Court will decide his punishment.

I read some of the day-by-day summaries,  but I tried to avoid Twitter updates from people watching the trial. We had waited years for this trial to happen, and it proved more difficult to follow than I expected.

I had known Dana for the better part of three decades. Our parents have been friends for longer than that. Our dads were business partners for a long time.

I thought about writing about this earlier, but I simply cannot view this case objectively. I cannot see this as a lawyer, only as a person who lost a friend. I don’t know the defendant, and I don’t care to. He may be completely innocent, or his lawyer may succeed at convincing the jury to see reasonable doubt even if he is guilty as shit. No one has any control over that. I’m struggling to voice no opinion here about the defendant, whose name I couldn’t even remember before the trial started. He honestly means nothing to me. I’d rather remember the woman he may or may not have taken from us.

We were never especially close friends. I hadn’t seen her in a couple of years, as best I recall, when I got the news she was gone. That moment is burned in my brain forever. I think we met for the first time when our families and some other people met for a weekend at the coast, somewhere near Port Aransas. That was probably 1980. We hung out at various times when out families got together. As young children, I wouldn’t exactly say we were “friends”–a boy and girl about two years apart in age. She had an Atari 2600 with the Pac-Man game when it first came out, though, so that made her cool to hang out with. I think friendship came in adulthood, even if we only saw each other at occasional holidays.

Truth be told, my real feeling is regret. I miss Dana terribly now that she is gone. The world was simply a better place with her in it.

If there could be a better testament to her life than what happened at her memorial, I can’t think of one: she was a huge animal welfare advocate, and someone (I’m not sure who) arranged to have the local Humane Society have some puppies at the church. Before I even had a chance to go play with a few of them, every single one of them was adopted.


Not Every Lawyer Can Bill 3,000 Hours in a Year. Most Lawyers Shouldn’t

A lawyer who got axed from his firm for allegedly failing to make his billable hour requirements has filed suit against his former firm, claiming they essentially required him to commit billing fraud:

A California lawyer who says he was fired from his law firm because he couldn’t meet a quota requiring 3,000 billable hours a year has filed an employment bias suit over his ouster.

The former associate, Richard Unitan, claims the unrealistic requirement forced lawyers to lie about their hours, the Los Angeles Daily Journal reports. Unitan, a Riverside litigator, claims he was essentially fired for not committing billing fraud.

A 3,000 hour billable requirement would require working about eight hours a day, every day of the year. Most firms require no more than 2,100 billable hours a year.

They say that for every hour a lawyer works, they can only bill 30-45 minutes of that time. To bill 3,000 hours would therefore require spending 4,000-6,000 in the office every year, or 11-16 hours per day. (I’m not sure who “they” are, but they talk a lot.)

Some lawyers can probably take to that lifestyle with gusto. Other lawyers might enjoy exercise, the arts, food, or having a family. Some lawyers might aspire to be an interesting human being outside of the context of their periodic review with the managing partner of their firm. Some lawyers might aspire to spending some of the waking hours of their day not tracking their time in 6- or 15-minute increments.

But then, most lawyers don’t get to work at the big fancy law firms anyway.


What, no New Year’s presents?

Happy New Year to everyone. Whether the world ends later this year or not, may this be a happy, peaceful, and fulfilling year for us all.

I always liked this comic strip. It summed up my thoughts on New Year’s as a child (this is probably the exact sentiment I had in 1981-82, at age 7).

For Better or Worse, December 31, 1981


Merry Winter-Holiday-of-Your-Choice to all

Whatever winter holiday you may celebrate, or if you celebrate none at all, I wish you a happy, peaceful, joyful day, and a bright and hopeful tomorrow. Calvin perhaps says it best here:

(h/t to Doobybrain for the image)


On people who claim to have all the answers

The following quote is attributed to “An Old Jew of Galicia

When someone is honestly 55% right, that’s very good and there’s no use wrangling. And if someone is 60% right, it’s wonderful, it’s great luck, and let him thank God. But what’s to be said about 75% right? Wise people say this is suspicious. Well, and what about 100% right? Whoever say he’s 100% right is a fanatic, a thug, and the worst kind of rascal.

It appears at the beginning of The Captive Mind by Czeslaw Milosz.

Whenever I encounter someone who claims to have no doubts, or to have absolute conviction in the rightness of their cause, I think of this quote. Usually, those who cannot even conceive of the possibility that they might be mistaken about something, even something minor, are the truly, truly scary ones.


I do not want to talk about 9/11

Photo by NASA

Photo by NASA, via

I mean, I really do not want to talk about 9/11. So far, I have managed to avoid it. I haven’t watched any TV in days, partly because of busy-ness, and partly to avoid the inevitable outpouring of visceral, voyeuristic retrospections on what does it all mean? and ten years later, what have we learned?

No thank you.

For starters, the only reason this particular anniversary gets any sort of special attention is because humans have five fingers on each hand, and as a result, we have a decimal numbering system. If we lived in the four-fingered world of “The Simpsons,” we would have commemorated the 10th anniversary of 9/11 two years ago, although in a base-eight numbering system it would be 11/13, and we would currently be in the year 3733 (yes, I found a base 8 conversion calculator online). The point is, the whole concept of a 10th anniversary is both numerically and biologically arbitrary.

In all seriousness, though, I wish we could just quietly commemorate the day for a moment and then go on about our business. I remember exactly where I was when I first saw what was happening, and I remember exactly what I did all day. I can sum it up for you quite succinctly: I watched TV and I tried to get drunk. That was it. I never felt any great sense of resolve. I felt pants-wetting fear. I am interested neither in commemorating nor reliving that time.

A Facebook status update is making its way around, that demonstrates the rather absurd lengths to which some people are taking their observance of this anniversary:

ON SEPTEMBER 11TH FROM 8:46 am -10:28 am … Everyone on Facebook should be silent, no postings or chats, from the time the first plane hit until the last building fell … Do this in memory of all who perished 10 years ago.

Needless to say, I am not going to do that. If other people want to observe a 102-minute moment of silence, go right ahead. I won’t even bother you. I intend to commemorate that time by not dwelling on it the way I dwelled on it in 2001.

I have ignored all of the “retrospective” news items on 9/11, even the ones I suspect I would find politically agreeable. I remember two pieces in the media from 2001 that have stuck in my memory, and they are the only two I care to remember:

You see, the steel in us is not always readily apparent. That aspect of our character is seldom understood by people who don’t know us well. On this day, the family’s bickering is put on hold.

As Americans we will weep, as Americans we will mourn, and as Americans, we will rise in defense of all that we cherish.

So I ask again: What was it you hoped to teach us? It occurs to me that maybe you just wanted us to know the depths of your hatred. If that’s the case, consider the message received. And take this message in exchange: You don’t know my people. You don’t know what we’re capable of. You don’t know what you just started.

But you’re about to learn.

All I can think, reading this now, is of the opportunities we missed to follow, as the saying goes, the better angels of our nature.

The hijackers who carried out the Sept. 11 attacks on the World Trade Center and Pentagon expressed confusion and surprise Monday to find themselves in the lowest plane of Na’ar, Islam’s Hell.

“I was promised I would spend eternity in Paradise, being fed honeyed cakes by 67 virgins in a tree-lined garden, if only I would fly the airplane into one of the Twin Towers,” said Mohammed Atta, one of the hijackers of American Airlines Flight 11, between attempts to vomit up the wasps, hornets, and live coals infesting his stomach. “But instead, I am fed the boiling feces of traitors by malicious, laughing Ifrit. Is this to be my reward for destroying the enemies of my faith?”

The rest of Atta’s words turned to raw-throated shrieks, as a tusked, asp-tongued demon burst his eyeballs and drank the fluid that ran down his face.

Bastrop, TX, 09/07/2011

The view from Highway 71 heading into Bastrop, September 7, 2011. That's not fog up ahead.

Dear sweet baby Jeebus, did we ever need to laugh that week.

I want to help the people who suffered and lost on that still-unimaginably terrible day. I do what little I can. What I do not want to do is relive that pain.

I also want to help the people who are suffering right now in my own city. As of yesterday, fires in Bastrop, Texas have destroyed 1,386 homes and taken two lives. I was in Bastrop this week. I doubt it is anything like Manhattan or DC was, but it is a place in dire need of help. I have seen an astounding capacity for strength, resilience, generosity, and selflessness out of the tragedy in Bastrop and other areas around Austin. This capacity was on display after 9/11, but that is generally not what we remember when we speak of commemorating that day.

9/11 was both a tragedy and a crime of epic proportions. Of that there is no doubt. But we have allowed it to define us for too long. On this most arbitrary of anniversaries, I sincerely hope that we can learn to remember without reliving, to help those who need our help now, and to honor what was lost by living our lives as best we can.

Related Blog Posts:

Media Blackout, Hope Doty, September 9, 2011

God Angrily Clarifies ‘Don’t Kill’ Rule, The Onion, September 26, 2001

Updated: I corrected a few dates and added a modifier.


Central Texas wildfires – please stay informed and be safe



Central Texas is suffering from severe wildfires due to drought and windy conditions. Mandatory evacuations are in effect in Bastrop County and in Travis County neighborhoods including Steiner Ranch, Pflugerville and Spicewood. At least 400 homes have been destroyed in Bastrop County, at least 20 in Steiner Ranch, and more west of Austin. There are two fires in Pflugerville, but I haven’t seen specific reports of homes lost.

The best resources online for updates and information seem to be the Austin American Statesman and YNN.

I know it’s Labor Day, but everyone please refrain from outdoor grilling.

The American Red Cross of Central Texas has updated information on donations, volunteering, and shelters for evacuated residents. Evacuees and their friends and families can check in on their website for information on evacuees (NOTE: as I write this at 9:00 a.m. on September 5, the “Safe and Well” Red Cross site seems to be down, but the information site is up and running).

The Austin Fire Department is working around the clock to fight all of these blazes.

UPDATE: Volunteers are needed in Bastrop County (h/t Kim Brushaber):

Distribution Center for Victims of Bastrop County Fires need volunteers today. Cell phone service is sketchy out there right now. They need clothing and toiletry items at the Dist. Center. Also, diapers, etc. Not crazy-overly worn stuff, etc.

Bring donations to 210 Main in Smithville. Also, they need volunteers: “also need Volunteers like CRAZY. Come in by. Now till whenever.”

Austin Pets Alive! pulled all of the dogs from the Bastrop County animal shelter last night, and they are waiving adoption fees today. They report that Austin Humane Society took all of the cats from the Bastrop Shelter. I’m still looking for adoption information for them.


When “best interest of the child” meets the First Amendment

A Pennsylvania man has started a free speech debate, of sorts.

A bitter, divorced Pennsylvania man’s blog has triggered a free-speech debate, officials say.

Doylestown resident Anthony Morelli created his blog,, in 2007 as a way to blow off steam about his ex-wife, The Philadelphia Inquirer reported Sunday.

But then his ex-wife, Allison Morelli, found out about the Web site and became very upset, calling it “heartbreaking” and potentially harmful to their 9- and 12-year-old sons.

At a June 6 custody hearing, Bucks County Court Judge Diane Gibbons ordered Anthony Morelli to take down the Web site and banned him from mentioning his ex-wife “on any public media” or saying anything about his children online “other than ‘happy birthday’ or other significant school events.”

At that point, Mr. Morelli did not stop posting, and the judge ordered that the site be taken down. Did this violate Mr. Morelli’s free speech rights? Many people believe it did, to the point that a campaign has begun to bring his website back:

We are asking for help in this defense because it is an issue that faces any parent that is divorced. Imagine a judge telling you that you cannot talk about your children on “any public media” – which would include things like Facebook updates, Twitter, or your personal blog – or you will lose custody.  Imagine the far-reaching consequences for bloggers everywhere if orders such as this one are left unchallenged?  There goes your online support group.  There goes your Facebook and Twitter updates.  Your website, personal OR commercial – ordered gone under threat of incarceration and having your beloved children removed from your custody.  This order flies in the face of our civil rights, and your civil rights, too! Imagine trying to protect your children from abuse and a judge telling you that you must hide the abuse and protect the abuser by not allowing you to talk about the abuse in public, we can’t let this stand.

While you're busy blogging, your children might be lost in a cornfield!

This does not appear to be a question of defamation, in that I don’t think the mother is specifically charging that statements on the blog were untrue, but rather that they would be harmful to the parties’ children if the children saw them. Most states, Pennsylvania included, follow the “best interest of the child” doctrine when determining child custody and orders relating to parenting. The question is, does the best interest of the children trump the father’s First Amendment rights?

I am very hesitant to support curtailing anyone’s freedom of speech and expression based on the extremely fuzzy “best interest” standards. In my experience, though, judges often place “best interests” above any rights of the parents, basic common sense, and the laws of gravity. Since I cannot directly review the blog in question, all I can say is that it seems to have contained some rather unpleasant stuff (just as anything at the forefront of a free speech debate does). I can see how the contents of the blog would be relevant to an ongoing custody case, since the nature of the parents’ relationship affects the children  on a daily basis. I can see a judge exercising some sort of review to make sure neither parent is defaming the other (in any medium, really). To issue a blanket injunction against most forms of communication with (or about) the children, though, does not sit well.

The blog seems petty, to me at least. Even if his ex-wife is a psycho, he is taking the low road. The point is that the low road ought to be his to take if he wants.


Tips on avoiding sexual assault

On the theme of an earlier post, I came across a useful guide for avoiding sexual assault in daily life.

Sexual assault prevention tips

My personal favorite:

If you are in an elevator and someone else gets in, DON’T ASSAULT THEM!

I know this was probably originally intended to be funny (and it is, in a way), but it’s also pretty dang sad that this even needs to be said out loud. Alas. Now go forth and behave yourself.


The snark! It burns!!!

Every so often a judge comes along with a razor wit that puts much of the confrontational silliness of our adversarial legal system into proper perspective. For a long time, Judge Sam Kent of Galveston, Texas filled that role: “With Big Chief tablet readied, thick black pencil in hand, and a devil-may-care laugh in the face of death, life on the razor’s edge sense of exhilaration, the Court begins.”

Today, we have Judge Martin Sheehan of Kenton County, Kentucky, who expressed poetic elation at the settlement of what must have been a nasty lawsuit:

Kenton Circuit Judge Martin Sheehan said in an order issued last month that he was “happier than a tick on a fat dog” that a settlement had been reached in a lawsuit over a contract dispute, according to the Lexington Herald-Leader.

In the order canceling the trial, which had been set for July 13, Sheehan wrote the court is “busier than a one-legged cat in a sand box and, quite frankly, would rather have jumped naked off of a twelve foot step ladder into a five gallon bucket of porcupines than have presided over a two week trial of the herein dispute, a trial which, no doubt, would have made the jury more confused than a hungry baby in a topless bar and made the parties and their attorneys madder than mosquitoes in a mannequin factory.”

The newspaper said Sheehan and attorneys in the case either declined to comment about the order or did not return calls.

Clearly the judge made a mistake when he chose law school over that creative writing course.

(Full order available here.)

Photo by Ket Quang,

This is meant to represent frustration, or something.

Sometimes it is nice to have a judge call out a situation like he sees it. Mind you, I don’t know that background of this case, but I can imagine frustration with overwhelmingly vast disputes run amok through the courthouse. It’s heartening to see a judge with a sense of humor, but it’s also a bit sad to see how badly we seem to need humor coming out of our legal system, as Judge Sheehan himself notes:

Sheehan said he was taken aback by the volume of calls regarding Kissel v. Schwartz & Maines & Ruby Co et al. In the week since Sheehan distributed the ruling to the attorneys, his office had been contacted by news outlets in Los Angeles, Houston, Chicago and New York, he said.

“It’s a sad comment on the legal profession,” Sheehan said. “A judge puts a little humor in the judicial opinion, and it goes viral.”

For my part, I say keep the snark coming.