Friday, November 25, 2011

Yogi Berra Super Genius

Lawrence Peter Berra is arguably the greatest to play his position in the 100+ year history of Major League Baseball and he is one of the all-time best clutch hitters the game has ever known. He is undeniably an American treasure. And in case you started the Dance of the Giblets a bit early during this abbreviated holiday week or are simply having difficulty arising from your Tryptophan-heightened daze on this morning after Turkey Day, you might have missed a couple of things that happened right before Thanksgiving that reinforced his status as a Super Genius.

Wednesday was a tough day to be a prosecutor anywhere within the jurisdictional boundaries of Newark, New Jersey. Whether your beat was the Federal Courthouse or the Superior Court of New Jersey, it mattered not. First, in the Federal Courthouse the United States Attorney's Office - having spent five and one-half weeks trying one of its own former brethren for murder - ended up with no better than a draw. A jury of twelve deliberated for more than five days in the murder trial of Paul Bergrin. Bergrin is a well-known criminal defense lawyer (and former Asst. United States Attorney) who was on trial for murder and for conspiracy to commit the murder of a witness. He eschewed the maxim that, "An attorney who represents himself has a fool for a client" and acted as his own counsel.

On Wednesday, after five-plus days of considering the evidence presented, the jury informed the judge that it was hopelessly deadlocked, which prompted him to declare a mistrial. Bergrin's faith in himself was rewarded. Bergrin is not out of the woods yet in terms of either these two charges or the other charges still pending against him. However, after Round One, he appears to be ahead on points on all scorecards. It shall be interesting to see how the government chooses to proceed. I reckon that we shall know the answer to that question sooner rather than later.

On a typical Wednesday, the mistrial in Bergrin's murder trial might have been the most scintillating legal story of the day. Not on this Wednesday. For on the Wednesday that just sped past us as we were stuffing turkeys and saucing cranberries, something even more atypical occurred in the Superior Court. In 1978, five teenage boys disappeared from the streets of Newark. They had last been seen together, shooting hoops or some such thing. For three decades, no trace of them was ever discovered. They were simply gone.

Dedicated detectives never gave up the investigation altogether. In 2008 a man named Philander Hampton confessed to having had a role in the quintet's disappearance and - as he told the story - murder. He not only implicated himself in the crime but he laid the lion's share of the responsibility at the feet of his cousin Lee Evans. In March 2010, Evans and Hampton were formally charged with five counts of murder five counts of murder and five counts of felony murder in the deaths of Michael McDowell, Randy Johnson and Alvin Turner, all 16, and Melvin Pittman and Ernest Taylor, both 17.

Hampton entered a plea of guilty to felony murder in exchange for a reduced sentence and testified against Evans at trial. In relying upon Hampton, the Essex County Prosecutor's Office did something that it would have preferred not to have had to do: it went "all in" with him. No DNA evidence surfaced to link Evans to the crimes. Prosecutors had no fingerprint evidence either.

Evans proclaimed his innocence from the time of his arrest. At trial, he took a page out of the Paul Bergrin playbook and represented himself. Unlike Bergrin, Evans is not a well-regarded, experienced criminal defense lawyer. He is a mason.

Wednesday, after having spent more than a dozen hours over four days deliberating the evidence that had been presented at trial, the jury acquitted Lee Evans on all charges. He was found "not guilty" on all ten counts. According to the Star-Ledger:

Although Evans displayed no emotion in court as the verdict was read, he requested that the judge tell him, “You’re dismissed.” And she did. On the short elevator ride down from the courtroom to the courthouse lobby, Evans hung his head in his hands and cried..

What actually happened to the five young boys who went out one evening in the summer of 1978 and never came home to their families I do not pretend to know. I do know that a jury of twelve seated in a courtroom in Newark, New Jersey determined that the State was not able to meet its considerable burden of proving beyond a reasonable doubt that Lee Evans had killed them.

One of the best lawyers I know is a former classmate of mine from Seton Hall Law. Ed McElroy is a sharp, quick-witted dude not to mention a damn fine trial attorney and an even better human being. On Wednesday afternoon, he and I exchanged e-mails about all the goings-on in Newark. I mentioned the fact that Evans, a mason, had represented himself at trial. Ed, never one to miss a beat, replied that Evans had himself disproven the not-quite-as-well-known axiom of, "A mason who represents himself has a tool for a client." Quite true.

For the State, the investigation into the disappearance and presumed murder of those five young souls is now over. For Lee Evans, it is over too. Tragically, more than thirty years after the fact it appears to be further from over than it has ever been before for the families of the five youngsters.

Some heavy sh*t hit the fan right before the holiday. But not all that was heavy was bad as well. Some of it was just heavy even if it was a feat performed by a woman who is anything but. Tip for anyone struggling with what to do with Thanksgiving leftovers: Call Sonya Thomas.

In case you were wondering, Yogi was right of course....

....for today anyway.


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