Thomas Parenteau could not save himself – surprised?

"Fee-fi-fo fum," benching your lawyer is pretty dumb.

Back in June, I wrote this post about the Thomas Parenteau trial where Parenteau (not a lawyer) was representing himself against 13 federal charges in a multi-million dollar fraud scam.  I discussed what a bad idea that was.  As it turns out, the jury convicted Parenteau of 11 of the 13 charges against him.  Parenteau was acquitted of two money-laundering charges.  I guess he left the stolen money dirty and maybe that’s why he was caught in the first place.

Parenteau was convicted on 11 counts including wire fraud, tax fraud, obstruction of justice, and witness tampering.

I am a firm believer that criminals should pay the price for their crimes and should not “get off easy.”  That belief stands whether you are a starlett like Lindsay Lohan who is getting jail time for violating probation or a less-well-known real estate scammer like Thomas Parenteau.  However, one big difference is that Ms. Lohan was represented by an attorney who will likely succeed in getting Lohan’s actual jail time reduced to a fraction of her sentence, while Mr. Parenteau’s ill-advised courtroom antics probably did nothing to help his cause.

According to Kathy Lynn Gray’s recent article in The Columbus Dispatch, the trial was expected to last six weeks.  It lasted two months and a lot of that extra time was a result of Parenteau’s decision to represent himself.

Trials are like traffic.  When the jury is taking in evidence like a nonstop cruise down I-71 at 65 MPH, the jurors are comfortable, attentive, and understanding.  But when the jury’s evidence show hits a traffic jam brought on by constant objections, improper questions, recesses, sidebars, and antics, the jurors become irritable, restless, fatigued, and annoyed.  You just want to lay on that horn and get the people in front of you moving to arrive at your destination.

The Parenteau trial was no cruise down I-71 with Parenteau’s appointed counsel locked in the trunk of the car.  Instead, Parenteau tells the jury “I’m an entrepreneur, not a criminal” and “fee-fi-fo-fum, the government says I am a cheap bum.”  Well, guess what?  Saying you’re an entrepreneur and and not a criminal is something I think Al Capone would say.  Spouting off “fee-fi-fo-fum” makes me think of an ogre, a bully – basically not someone with whom I want to be friends.  These statements do no paint a picture of a victim of circumstance or generate much sympathy.

I do not have any reason to believe that Parenteau was wrongfully convicted.  All evidence to the contrary.  But, competent legal counsel can mean the difference between life in prison and maybe seeing the dawn on an open field of freedom one day.

Parenteau will be sentenced in a few weeks.  If he has any appealable issues, I wonder if he’ll let his attorneys finally get involved.

Speeding tickets based on a guess are OK, Ohio Supreme Court says

If I guess 5 MPH over, you get a green frog. If I'm under, you get a $100 fine.

In a 5-1 decision, the Ohio Supreme Court upheld a conviction on a speeding ticket solely based on the arresting officer’s guess as to how fast the car was moving.  No radar.  No lasers.  Just a cop that said, “Man, it looks like he’s going 79 miles per hour in this 60 mile per hour zone.”  That’s right, 79.  Not 75 and certainly not 80.  Exactly 79.

Officer Christopher R. Santimarino testified that he had worked traffic enforcement since 1995 and received specialized training to visually estimate the speed of a vehicle.  This training means that Santimarino was able to correctly guess the speed of a vehicle within 4 miles per hour of its actual speed. It must have been plain luck that Santimarino did not write the driver a ticket for going 64 in a 60.

The real kick in this case is that Santimarino claimed that his radar gun clocked the driver at 82 miles per hour – but he could not produce a copy of his radar training certificate on the day of trial so that evidence was thrown out.  But the trial court allowed his guess to be considered as evidence and convicted the driver based on that alone.

From an academic standpoint, I understand what Justice Maureen O’Connor is saying in her opinion.  She’s saying that a properly trained police officer’s account of the event is admissible evidence so the jury should be allowed to hear the officer’s guess.  Maybe that is admissible persuasive evidence, but maybe a guess is not “sufficient evidence” to convict.

Ohio appellate courts were split on this “guess evidence.”  Six appellate districts have held that a guess is good enough and three districts have held that a guess is not enough to overcome the presumption of innocence and the burden of proof beyond a reasonable doubt for conviction.

The theory here is that machines, like radar guns, are exacting instruments, but humans can make mistakes – even the highly trained ones.  Just ask Major League umpire Jim Joyce who mistakenly called a Cleveland Indians runner safe at first base robbing the Detroit Tigers’ Armanda Galarraga of a perfect game this season.  Joyce has officiated major league baseball games for 21 years including All-Star games, division championships, league championships, and World Series games.  The Indians runner was out by a mile and Joyce called him safe based solely on his visual observation and standing just a few feet away.  He later acknowledged his mistake upon seeing the replay footage.  Human error.  Highly trained human error.

You can’t reverse a bad call like Joyce’s in baseball because it is accepted that human error is a part of the game.  But, is human error an accepted part of our justice system to the point where an erroneous allegation can result in a criminal conviction?  Our Nation’s “presumption of innocence” and the necessity for “proof beyond a reasonable doubt” does not sound like guess work to me.

You can read the decision in Barberton v. Jenney right here.

Defending yourself in court: the quickest road to ruin.

Now, I know what you’re thinking.  Didn’t Jerry write an article a couple of months ago with tips on how to represent yourself in small claims court?  Yes, I did.  But there’s a big difference between $1,200 in damage to your car and a federal indictment for a bajillion counts of fraud.  Yes, bajillion is a highly technical legal term.

When I was clerking in the Franklin County Court System, I observed a murder trial where the defendant insisted on representing himself.  It reminded me of the courtroom scene from “Airplane 2” – it was just ridiculous.  The Judge was beyond irritated to the point where the Judge’s forehead vein was having a better time than the jury.  When you are on trial for your life, or in a civil trial that can affect your entire life, I firmly believe in the old adage that one who is his own lawyer has a fool for a client.  I’m writing this post after reading John Futty’s article in today’s Columbus Dispatch about a man on trial for fraud.  He’s representing himself despite repeated warnings not to do so from the Judge, his court appointed attorneys, and probably every single person he has come across that knows about this case.  As someone who has tried several cases for clients and has observed a trial where an accused has represented himself, I can say with confidence that this will not end well for Thomas Parenteau.  For the Dispatch, Mr. Futty writes:

As Thomas Parenteau prepared for a second day of cross-examining his former mistress in a multimillion-dollar fraud case last week, he received a harsh critique from the federal judge handling his trial.

"I'm not a lawyer, but I play one in real life at a federal trial where I stand accused."

“You stepped on some land mines yesterday that wounded you pretty good,” Judge Michael H. Watson told Parenteau before bringing the jury into the courtroom for more testimony.

Watson urged Parenteau to reconsider his decision to represent himself, a recommendation he has made more than once since the jury trial began three weeks ago in U.S. District Court in Columbus.

Parenteau hasn’t taken the judge’s advice, insisting instead on exercising his constitutional right to handle his own defense.

A 1975 U.S. Supreme Court ruling that upheld a defendant’s right to self-representation “has been the bane of judges and prosecutors,” said Joshua Dressler, a professor at Ohio State University’s Moritz College of Law who specializes in criminal law. Continue reading