Monday, March 10, 2014
Attorney Luke S. Rioux started the Harmless Error blog in 2012 covering developments in criminal law and trying to explain how and why the criminal justice system does what it does. Criminal cases are in the news everyday and it’s easy to read those stories as strange anecdotes. There’s always a lot more to it and this blog tries to look at the law, strategy and public policy behind those headlines.
Wondering what “Harmless Error” means? Read this post for a definition.
I’m a criminal defense attorney in Portland, Maine. I handle cases in State and Federal Court ranging from disorderly conduct to murder. I work for Fairfield & Associates an 11 lawyer firm with offices in Lyman and Portland. The firm also handles family law, personal injury and other case types.
You can see all of my contact information here. I’m pretty active on social media at these profiles:
Recently unsealed court documents, many of which are linked below, show that attorney Gary Prolman has been under federal investigation since late 2012. Prolman received a large amount of cash from a man named David Jones. Jones has since plead guilty to federal trafficking and money laundering charges. Though no charges have been filed against Prolman, he may be considering a plea deal.
In November of 2013, IRS agents executed a seach warrant on Prolman’s Saco office. The prosecution filed a standard motion to seal the warrant and related documents and the court granted the motion ordering the materials sealed for the normal 60 days. When that expired, Prolman’s attorney Peter DeTroy, moved to keep the documents sealed. He had to give some reason and here's what he said:
“The defendant states that he has reached an agreement in principle with the U.S. Attorney’s Office to enter a guilty plea, but is still working on the specific language related to the plea.”
The motion was granted and the papers remained sealed from public view until March 4, 2014.
The Maine Supreme Court just decided a case called State of Maine v. Aaron Lowden. In its Feb. 25, 2014, decision, the Court threw out an aggravated trafficking conviction and seven-year sentence for a man convicted of manufacturing methamphetamine. The case reinterpreted what “manufacturing” means and clarified what the State must prove to get a conviction for this kind of drug trafficking.
Lowden’s trouble began in January 2012 when his landlord observed odd behavior and repeated trips to the basement. When she opened the basement door to investigate, she smelled a strange odor and called police. A deputy arrived to find Lowden using a camp stove to heat glass containers filled with fuming chemicals.
When MDEA searched the residence, they found chemistry equipment, chemicals and manuals, but they did not find any methamphetamine. Further testing showed that Lowden lacked ingredients needed to successfully make methamphetamine and that he had not done the synthesis required to produce the drug.
Drug trafficking is most commonly proved where the defendant sells drugs to someone, but Maine’s drug trafficking laws define the term “trafficking” to include “manufacturing” a scheduled drugs. The statute further defines “manufacturing” to mean “to produce, prepare, propagate, compound, convert or process…by means of chemical synthesis.”
The U.S. Supreme Court issued a long list of orders on 2/24/14. Most notably, the court refused to hear cases challenging various laws restricting gun rights and you can read coverage of the gun case denials here. The court also summarily decided three criminal cases today. One of them is a pretty interesting story:
Samuel Ford was charged in an Iowa Federal Court with selling heroin to a man named Joseph Scolaro. The prosecution further alleged that the heroin Ford sold resulted in Scolaro’s death and that Ford had a prior felony drug conviction. The allegations of the prior and the death make the mandatory minimum sentence life in prison.
Ford went to trial claiming that he had not supplied Scolaro with the heroin and also arguing that heroin didn’t kill him. The evidence at trial was anything but clear and some of it is recounted in the lower court opinion.
Though Scolaro possessed heroin the day he died, no one actually saw him inject the drug and medical examiners found no obvious injection site. Post-mortem toxicology further muddied the waters listing the cause of death as:
Suppose a man goes to trial for murder, is convicted and given two life sentences. Another man confesses to the killings, leads police to the murder weapon and later hands them the clothes he wore during the crime. Obviously, the State would want to do DNA analysis on this evidence to see if the wrong man might be in prison, right? Well, as it turns out, not so much.
That's pretty much what happened in a case decided 2/18/14 called Jeffrey Cookson v. State of Maine. Jeffery Cookson went to trial in 2001 for two 1999 murders. The case against him was largely circumstantial and no murder weapon was found before trial. Still, the jury found him gulty and he got two life sentences.
After the verdict, a man named David Vantol confessed to police that he was the killer. He corroborated his story by bringing detectives to a hiding place where he uncovered a pistol. The gun was tested and confirmed as the murder weapon. A couple days later, Vantol appeared at the police station with a bag containing clothes he claimed to have worn during the killings.
Vantol is a strange man and his confessions were strange too. He first claimed that he shot the victims in self defense, but then changed his story saying that Cookson hired him to do the killings. After speaking to police, Vantol was admitted to a psychiatric hospital. He then recanted his confessions, claimed that he had nothing to do with the murders and that Cookson told him to confess.
A round up of interesting criminal law stories from around the paper and the internet. The title is a nod to the great Neale Duffett:
In a story that ran 2/8/14 David Hench writes about State of Maine v. Tessa Folsom. Folsom was charged with several counts, including felonies, when her son accidentally ingested methadone. The case was resolved with at plea to a misdemeanor for a sentence of 6 days. The article includes some coverage of the case, but focuses on the wider problem of children accidentally overdosing on opiate addiction medications.
What the article dosn't say is that Folsom actually had a three day trial. The jury deadlocked, unable to reach a verdict on any of the charges. The parties then reached an agreement for a plea to endangering the welfare of a child and a 6 day sentence. Folsom served that time when she was first arrested. She will also be on a defered disposition for the next year. This resolution is more lenient then the two plea deals that were worked out months ago. Each of those was rejected by the court.
Scott Dolan covers an attempted murder case where a prosecutor did not turn over audio recordings of some witness interviews. The interviews tended to help the defense by creating doubt as to who started the fight and by showing the racial bias of some witnesses (one of the defendants is black).