The old saying is that "politics makes for strange bedfellows." That's can also be true when it comes to criminal defense. Via Concurring Opinions, here's an interesting story from Washington Monthly about a big federal murder case in Baltimore that's been derailed by extremist legal tactics. The case, which has been dragging out for a few years, involves a violent drug conspiracy with several defendants and even more dead bodies. The defendants are African-Americans. The case went federal so the DoJ could seek the death penalty.
When things got weird when the defendants appeared for a hearing in November 2005:
A few minutes after 10 a.m., United States District Court Judge Andre M. Davis took his seat and began his introductory remarks. Suddenly, the leader of the defendants, Willie Mitchell, a short, unremarkable looking twenty-eight-year old with close-cropped hair, leapt from his chair, grabbed a microphone, and launched into a bizarre soliloquy.The defendants had discovered a set of routinely rejected legal arguments developed by tax protesters and the like over the decades. Basically, it goes like this:
'I am not a defendant,' Mitchell declared. 'I do not have attorneys.' The court 'lacks territorial jurisdiction over me,' he argued, to the amazement of his lawyers. To support these contentions, he cited decades-old acts of Congress involving the abandonment of the gold standard and the creation of the Federal Reserve. Judge Davis, a Baltimore-born African American in his late fifties, tried to interrupt. 'I object,' Mitchell repeated robotically. Shelly Martin and Shelton Harris followed Mitchell to the microphone, giving the same speech verbatim. Their attorneys tried to intervene, but when Harris’s lawyer leaned over to speak to him, Harris shoved him away.
Judge Davis ordered the three defendants to be removed from the court, and turned to Gardner, who had, until then, remained quiet. But Gardner, too, intoned the same strange speech. 'I am Shawn Earl Gardner, live man, flesh and blood,' he proclaimed. Every time the judge referred to him as 'the defendant' or 'Mr. Gardner,' Gardner automatically interrupted: 'My name is Shawn Earl Gardner, sir.' Davis tried to explain to Gardner that his behavior was putting his chances of acquittal or leniency at risk. 'Don’t throw your life away,' Davis pleaded. But Gardner wouldn’t stop. Judge Davis concluded the hearing, determined to find out what was going on.
Hucksters and charlatans prowled the Midwest as the farm crisis deepened, selling desperate farmers expensive seminars and prepackaged legal defenses 'guaranteed' to cancel debts and forestall foreclosure. Since the gold standard had been abandoned in 1933, they argued, money had no inherent value, and so neither did their debts. All they had to do, farmers were told, was opt out of the system by sending a letter to the appropriate authorities renouncing their driver’s license, birth certificate, and social security number. That number was allegedly tied to a secret government account held in a secure subterranean facility in lower Manhattan, where citizens are used as collateral against international debts issued by the Fed and everyone’s name is on a master list, spelled in capital letters—the very same capital letters used in the official court documents detailing foreclosure and other actions against them. The capital letter name was nothing but an artificial construct, they were told, a legal 'straw man.' It wasn’t them—natural, live, flesh and blood men.The irony is that these theories trace their roots back to a virulent racist and anti-Semite. And so, here were a group of African-American defendants adopting legal theories crafted by men who would begrudge them their very humanity.
How did these guys learn of these theories? The bane of defense counsel the world over - the jailhouse lawyer:
In October 2004, a prisoner named Michael Burpee arrived at the Maryland Correctional Adjustment Center in downtown Baltimore. Burpee had recently been convicted in Florida of trafficking PCP to Maryland. Hoping for leniency, he pled guilty, only to receive a twenty seven-year prison sentence dictated by harsh federal sentencing guidelines. Desperate for a way out, he began listening to someone—presumably a fellow prisoner—who explained how the charges were all part of a secret government conspiracy against him. Then Burpee was brought up on new federal drug charges in Maryland, and shipped north. He carried with him a pile of documents that were remarkably similar to those that had been filed by the Montana Freemen.What does all this mean for the Baltimore murder defendants? It's hard to tell for sure, as the trial still hasn't happened yet. But, the Government has taken the death penalty off the table, which may or may not be a consequence of the legal spanner they've thrown in the works. We'll see.
In Baltimore, Burpee found a group of inmates at the margins of society, people like Willie Mitchell and company who were staring at the full force of the federal government. As one defense attorney representing a flesh-and-blood defendant put it, they 'saw a freight train coming and felt three feet tall.' Soon the unorthodox legal filings and courtroom outbursts began to multiply. It was, one public defender later explained, 'like an infection that was invading our client population of pre-trial detainees.' Burpee appears to have been patient zero in the epidemic. For over a year, he harangued his lawyers and judge about the conspiracy and spread the word in the Baltimore lockup.
Please read the whole article by Kevin Carey. He goes through some fascinating history as to where these theories came from and the irony (fully grasped by the trial judge) of the situation.