Saturday, November 21, 2009

Practicing Law

Each lawyer has a different set of dreams and goals. Mine include wanting to help the little guy, take on some cases which other lawyers may fear as too hard or impossible, solve some tricky legal questions in a novel way, and then be recognized for a tough job well done. So, I guess, I wanted to be a hero (hopefully) and help “make some new law” by having a case reported in the law books as a “case of first impression.”

The promise of fees has never been the determining factor. Fitting cases usually involved modest or no fees at all. I recall a quote attributed to Abraham Lincoln—“do a good job practicing law and the fees will take care of themselves” or something like that. It’s true.

The “hero” thing probably came from watching black-and-white television shows growing up-- guys like Hop-a-Long Cassidy, Cisco Kid, and The Lone Ranger.

That, and perhaps also learning from some of the “classic” heroes-- like Don Quixote, Attorney Atticus Finch (Gregory Peck in "To Kill a Mockingbird"), Detective Harry Callahan (Clint Eastwood in "Dirty Harry" ), and Sheriff Will Kane (Gary Cooper in "High Noon"). Myths. The only real male hero in my life who was not a myth was my Dad.

The Ronda Reynolds case (posted earlier) got me to thinking about the civil cases I’ve handled that sort of fall into the category. Weird, but they all seem to involve death in some way—

1988-- Burkhart v. Harrod, 110 Wn.2d 381 (1988) involved a young man who had been killed when his motorcycle wrapped around a telephone pole after a wedding rehearsal dinner party. His blood alcohol level was almost twice the legal limit. He left a wife and small family. It seemed that somebody at the party could have taken his keys away or given him a ride. The cases in the State of Washington hold that surviving family members may sue a tavern owner, parents may sue those who provide booze to minors, and relatives of employees who were over-served at a company party could sue the employer. But no liability had yet been imposed upon a “social host” who over-served an obviously intoxicated guest. There is still no liability against social hosts, as we lost the appeal.

1989-- Halquist v. Department of Corrections, 113 Wn.2d 818 (1989) was sort of a ghoulish First Amendment type of case. I represented a journalist who wanted to video tape record the scheduled hanging of Charles Campbell, who had slit the throats of three women while he was in work release. The case was dismissed on grounds that there was no right to access the visual images of the hanging under the state constitution. The public would have to consider the death penalty in other ways.

1991-- Rabb v. McDermott, 60 Wn.App. 334 (1991) involved a guy named McDermott who died in a car wreck, leaving two twin boys known to be his. I represented a woman who stepped forward and claimed that her young boy was also a son, although McDermott was not named on the birth certificate and paternity had never been established. We filed a claim against the estate and sought to prove paternity against the deceased. Going without blood tests and in face of the “dead man statute” (which means you can’t use what the deceased said when alive if you might benefit in someway from those words). We prevailed, and a trust fund was set up for the third son.

2000-- Nelson v. Schubert, 98 Wn.App. 754 (2000) involved extreme domestic violence. Schubert was an insurance agent and reserve police officer who once said “Only stupid people get caught for murder.” He married younger Juliana Schubert and fathered two sons. The marriage was falling apart and Juliana was leaving him. She then disappeared without a trace, not taking her purse, car keys or other belongings. Police suspected him and even arrested him, but the lead detective died from leukemia. Schubert was released and never charged. Juliana’s mother asked me to file a wrongful death claim against the husband after the seven-year presumption of death kicked in. Based primarily upon his inconsistent statements, a jury found that he was the “slayer” and awarded the sons about $1,800,000 (although the sons fought us, too). Based upon his civil trial testimony (he should have remained silent, but just couldn't resist showing how smart he was), he was later charged and convicted of murder. (One of his sons committed suicide shortly after that).

2008-- Thompson v. Wilson, 142 Wn.App. 803 (2008) was where a husband, whose wife was leaving him the next morning, called 911 and reported that “my wife just committed suicide” by shooting herself in the back of her head. The sheriff declared the death a suicide and the husband was never prosecuted. I represented the mother of the wife, left to sue the coroner to change her daughter’s death certificate from “suicide.” That case is still in the works. So far, so good. The jury has said the death was not a suicide and that the coroner acted arbitrarily and capriciously. The coroner has refused to change the death certificate.

There is something big and serious about cases involving death—perhaps because they deal with the end of life. Maybe such cases give us an opportunity to respect and honor life, examine how death may come and what it leaves, or… maybe with death in the background we get a chance to see how we act before it.

Thursday, November 19, 2009

Parker's Ballroom

Parker's Ballroom on Aurora Avenue in North Seattle was already a northwest landmark when I moved to the area in the mid- 1960's. My new friends told me about it.

An album had been recorded there by Jimmy Hanna and "The Dynamics" and was hard to find. We found one copy and shared it but now it's long gone.

The record had some familiar instrumental hits on it including "Work Song" and "JAJ." That's what I liked about the band-- the horn section-- a trumpet and tenor sax. A couple of the garage bands I joined worked out our own versions of these hits. Still, the Dynamics were the model for me.

While I got to Parker's a few times, I never saw the Dynamics. Never saw Dave Lewis, either, but listened lots of times to him play "David's Mood" (another northwest standard) on his Hammond B 3.

A lot of big names played at Parker's over the years-- Ray Charles, The Beach Boys, BB King, Ricky Nelson, Guy Lombardo, Tina Turner, Tower of Power, Stevie Wonder, and many, many more.

The "big names" I saw there were Van Morrison and Them (when "Gloria" was their first big hit) and Doug Kershaw ("Louisiana Man"). Van Morrison had on a dark brown suit with a blue shirt which I thought was cool enough to imitate in a courtroom years later. I remember disliking Doug Kershaw because he embarrassed his bass player on stage in front of all of us-- we didn't hear the mistakes that Kershaw had to point out on stage in the middle of a song.

All the good northwest bands performed there, including-- Don & the Goodtimes, Paul Revere and the Raiders, Merilee Rush. But, I didn't see them at Parker's. Normana Hall in Everett was "our" place to go see and hear Northwest Bands, including Tiny Tony and the Statics. This is an excellent site for the history of all the northwest garage bands and more.

Parker's opened in 1930. "Like a few other local dance halls, it spanned all of the sequential musical eras from the wild jazz days of the Prohibition Era right on up through the forties swing scene, from the rise of rock ‘n’ roll in the fifties, to the psychedelic sixties, and onwards to the heavy metal, disco, and punk rock scenes of the seventies. Unlike most other historic dance halls though, Parker’s still stands."

Check out for more pictures of the Dynamics and a sound clip of JAJ.

UPDATEParker's Ballroom was demolished in December 2012.

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Ronda Reynolds

Ronda Reynolds was born in 1965. She was the youngest female cadet accepted into the Washington State Patrol in 1985. Ronda served on patrol for almost 10 years. She resigned and later married Ron Reynolds, an elementary school principal in 1997.

On December 16, 1998, Ron Reynolds called 911 and reported that Ronda just "committed suicide." Lewis County Sheriff's Deputies found Ronda dead in her walk-in bathroom closest. She was lying on her left side, wearing pajamas, and was covered by an electric blanket with her head on a pillow. A second pillow covered her head. Her right hand was under the blanket and her left hand was clutching the blanket. She died from a single gunshot wound in front of her right ear. She was 33 years old.

A little over three years ago Marty Hayes called and asked me to meet Barb Thompson, Ronda's mother. Marty is founder and president of The Firearms Academy of Seattle. He had been working on the case for a couple of years and said Barb was looking for a lawyer to help her get some answers about her daughter's death.

The coroner changed his determination three times between 1998 and 2002 — to suicide from undetermined, then back to undetermined, and finally suicide.

The more they explained the case, the more unbelievable it seemed. For example, there were no fingerprints on the revolver. The husband had signed a $50,000 life insurance form and mailed it in with a premium right after Ronda's death. Jerry Berry, the lead homicide detective assigned to the case, believed the death scene was a "staged suicide." Berry kept working on the case but one day was suddenly ordered "off the case" and demoted back to patrol. He never quit working on the case-- even after he resigned from the Lewis County Sheriff's Department because of continuing harassment.

The probate had long been opened and closed and it was too late to file a wrongful death lawsuit against the husband. So, Marty pointed out an unused state law that allowed somebody like Barb to challenge a death certificate in court. It looked a little late for that, too, and although we were thrown out of court, we prevailed on appeal and were sent back to Lewis County Superior Court for a trial. The appeal is reported in Thompson v. Wilson, 142 Wn.App. 803 (2008) . Jury trial began on November 2, 2009.

This is from the Chehalis Chronicle--

A jury concluded Tuesday that Lewis County Coroner Terry Wilson's suicide determination in a death 11 years ago was incorrect. The unprecedented judicial review is the latest twist in the case of Ronda Reynolds, a former state patrol trooper who was found shot dead under an electric blanket in a walk-in closet at her Toledo home on Dec. 16, 1998.

Reynolds' mother Barbara Thompson has never agreed with the determination that her daughter committed suicide.She first filed a civil suit in 2006. Her case was facilitated by a state law passed in 1987 that allows the determination of coroners and medical examiners to be subjected to judicial review.

Ferguson called a ballistics expert, a forensic pathologist, former Sheriff's Office employees and friends of Reynolds to the stand.

(That's Dr. Jeffrey Reynolds--no relationship-- the reknown forensic pathologist, recalling where exactly in all the evidence he noted lividity, which supported his opinion that Ronda died earlier than when claimed by Ron Reynolds).

Jurors faced three questions, all of which they answered unanimously in favor of Thompson:

Question 1: Was the coroner’s determination of suicide accurate?Jury: No.

Question 2: Did you find the coroner’s determination of suicide more likely than not?Jury: Not likely.

Question 3: Did you find the coroner’s determination of suicide arbitrary and capricious?Jury: Yes.

The judge denied Thompson’s request to ask the jury whether the official cause of death could be changed to a homicide, saying there was no legal authority to make such a determination.

(Jerry Berry, Royce Ferguson, Marty Hayes)

The little guy can fight city hall. It's just not easy.