Gamblers and Crime in Oklahoma

August 11, 2009

The State of Oklahoma sets aside money from gambling revenues for problem gamblers to get help.  But little of that money is being used.  About one-third of it is unused.  Advocates say it is because of lack of public awareness.

Other states, including Louisiana, are required to place the “gambling help line” on billboards.  “The roadsides are inundated with cassino billboards.  And you know how many  billboards we have in Oklahoma with the gambling help line number? – not one,” said Willey Harwell, executive director of the Oklahoma Association for Problem and Compulsive Gambling.

This is a statewide organization that contracts with the Department of Mental Health and Substances Abuse Services to maintain the 24-hour gambling help line.  It also offers community education and promotes counseling services.  The state of Oklahoma spent $143,000 in 2008 to promote awareness about gambling addiction and treatment.  By law in Oklahoma, casinos, all 110 of them, must have the information available for treatment.

Only 245 people sought help with their gambling last fiscal year.  They went to one of the 12 certified gambling treatment providers who contract with the state.

Cindy Satterfield of Gateway to Prevention and Recovery in Shawnee believes there are many more problem gamblers than have sought help.  Hers is the only service in Pottawatomie County with certified gambling counselors.  She has only seven people in treatment now.  She has put out flyers to advertise her services but cannot compete with the casinos. In the stretch along Interstate 40 between Oklahoma City and Shawnee, there are 20 billboards advertising casinos.  There are none with the gambling help line.

Satterfield said gamblers usually do not seek help until they are in crisis.  Until then, shame keeps them away. When they do finally seek help, they are commonly more than a month behind on their mortgage, car payments and utility bills.

Criminal defense lawyers become acquainted with gamblers when they are eventually charged with a crime.  The crime stems from their trying to get back the money they have gambled away.

Embezzlement is the most common way gamblers get in over their heads.  As they continue to gamble more and more in a never-ending chase to make up their losses, these people, often over a period of years, may embezzle hundreds of thousands of dollars.  They continue to have access to money, and they want to pay back what they have taken, so they continue to  dig deeper and gamble it away, embezzle and gamble forever – until they get caught.  And, of course, then they have nothing left to pay back in restitution.

Mike Mass, former Oklahoma legislator, recently admitted he had a gambling problem that led him to destruction and a federal sentence from the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Oklahoma.  Dan Draper, former Speaker of the House in Oklahoma, also admitted having a gambling addiction that got him in trouble.

“I’m not the kind of person to lie about anything, but I would lie about gambling,” a gambling addict said.  “Gambling addicts are master manipulators,, but at some point it catches up with us, and we can’t hide it any longer,” she said. She ran up $70,000 in credit card debt and couldn’t stop.  “Its not about the money.  I’m mesmerized by the machines.”

But, as crushing as her debt is, she won’t be facing prison time.  Of course, some people in this situation, by the time they retain a criminal defense lawyer, they may feel that they deserve prison.  It’s more feeling they need to be punished.


Oklahoma Forensic Anthropologist Analyzes Criminal Evidence in Famous Cases

August 6, 2009

Not often do criminal defense lawyers face expert witnesses in the field of forensic anthropology.  This is a field requiring years of tedious work on just one subject, and there are few people who qualify in the field as experts.  Clyde Snow is one of them, and he lives in the Oklahoma City area.

Snow, whom some call the “father of forensic anthropology,” has confirmed skeletal remains of such well-known figures as Tutankhamun, the king from the Middle Kingdom of Egypt, the victims of the Oklahoma City bombing, Dr. Joseph Mengele of Nazi war-crime infamy, and those of President John F. Kennedy.

Snow served as a consultant on the remains found under the house of John Wayne Gacy, who murdered 33 boys and young men from 1972 to 1979 in suburban Chicago.  He found that all but one of these victims had been suffocated, some with plastic bags over their heads and others with ligature strangulation.

Snow even investigated Kurdish deaths in Iraq and testified in Saddam Hussein’s trial.  In 1991, after the first Gulf War, Snow went to Kurdistan, sponsored by Middle East Watch to document some of the gas attacks Hussein ordered in 1988 and 1989.  With a team of Argentine, Guatemalan and Chilean forensic anthropologists he had trained over the years.  They exhumed some mass graves and examined and documented the skeletons.  They took samples from bomb craters in a village that had undergone a chemical attack on which several people were killed and many injured.

The investigators sent the samples to Porton Down in England for analysis.  They found there were traces of serum gas.  This was important to prove that a complex chemical like serum had persisted long enough to be traced, but no one suspected at that time that this evidence would ever be used in any court proceedings.

Nearly 15 years later Saddam Hussein was brought to trial in Iraq.  Snow was called as a witness for the prosecution and asked to present this evidence. And, unlike any other trial Snow had testified in, the accused himself was allowed to cross-examine Snow.  Saddam immediately challenged Snow.  He said Iraq was full of mass graves and asked how Snow knew that ones I had described were not those of Sumerians from thousands of years ago.

Snow had a powerful answer.  He pointed out that the Sumerians had a rich civilization but not likely so advanced that its people wore digital wristwatches such as those found on the Kurdish skeletons.  Furthermore, it was unlikely that the wristwatches of Sumerians, if that is what they were, would all have stopped on August 28, 1988.  Of course, Saddam Hussein went on meaninglessly after that, and the judge had to have him sit down.

During training of his forensic team some of students he was training in Argentina would break down with emotion at a mass grave or morgue.  Snow had to give them some tough love at that point, insisting they cry at home to allow them to go on with their work, to perform professionally regardless of the obvious human tragedies they were witnessing.  But they can have some fun, as well, like when they searched for bodies of Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid.

In the Bolivian village of San Vicente, they found a graveyard where the two were supposed to be buried.  They exhumed two skeletons and took one of them back to the United States.  There they extracted DNA, which excluded either Butch or Sundance on genetic evidence.  It turns out the skeleton was that of a German named Zimmerman, an engineer in a mining company in Bolivia. He had died about the same time by accidental gunshot.

At the age of 81, Snow continues.  Most recently he has been testifying in a trial regarding the alleged extrajudicial executions in 1998 of hostages-takers in the siege in the Japanese Embassy in Lima, Peru. Snow is a true professional, contributing much to the criminal justice system over the years,  and we Oklahomans are proud to claim him as one of our own.


Jurors Improper Use of Today’s Technology

August 2, 2009

Jurors are sworn to tell the truth when they are initially examined by the judge and attorneys when they first arrive in the courtroom. This is during voir dire.  If not stricken from that jury for cause or peremptorily, they take a second oath to “well and truly” do their duties, which include following all the dictates of the judge.

Mistrials occur sometimes, but they are much disliked by judges and judicial administrators because they require another trial from beginning to finish. All that time, all that expense.  A jury trial takes a lot of preparation by the lawyers and witnesses. A jury trial is an emotional and planning event that causes high anxiety and great concentration. Nobody wants to do it all over again, but that is what is required when a mistrial takes place.

Mistrials can result from a lot of things: an error committed by one of the attorneys, an error in evidence or law that cannot be fixed during the trial, some unusual event that prevents going forward or that interrupts the appearance of a witness, and sometimes jury misconduct.

Now there is a new way for jurors to misbehave.  Before, a mistrial could be declared if a juror communicated with someone during the trial or during deliberations.  With advances in electronic communications come new ways to communicate improperly.

A few months ago a juror in Florida was doing research on the Internet while sitting as a juror in a federal drug trial. He admitted to the judge he did that in direct violation of the judge’s order.  Just to be safe, the judge inquired of the remaining members of the jury, and eight more admitted doing the same thing.  Shocked, United States District Judge William Zloch declared a mistrial in the case.

The same week, Stoam Holdings, a building products company was seeking a new trial from a judgment entered against them in an Arkansas court for $12.6 million, claiming a juror improperly used Twitter to send updates during the civil trial.  One of the entries from Johnathan Powell, the juror in question, was this: “So Johnathan, what did you do today?  Oh nothing really, I just gave away TWELVE MILLION DOLLARS of somebody else’s money.”

A few days later, defense lawyers in the federal criminal trial of a former Pennsylvania state senator demanded the judge declare a mistrial before the verdict was delivered.  Lawyers for defendant Vincent Fumo, on trial for corruption, said a juror posted updates on the case on Twitter and Facebook and claimed the juror had even told his readers that a “big announcement” was coming on Monday.  The judge decided to allow the deliberations to continue.  The jury found Mr. Fumo guilty, and Mr. Fumo’s lawyers will use the internet postings as grounds for appeal.

Jurors are prohibited from seeking information about the case outside the courtroom.  The judge always instructs them to base their verdict only on the evidence presented to them during the trial, not on anything they may have heard before and certainly not on anything else during the trial.  Some evidence is not allowed to go to the jury, and the jury is admonished not to consider what they think that evidence would have been. But now, using their cellphones, jurors can look up anything on the internet while sitting as jurors. They can also share their opinions or describe trial events with their friends outside, which is also prohibited by routine jury instructions.  Everything involved with a jury and its deliberations is supposed to be secret, private, confidential.

Now attorneys have begun to check the blogs and web sites of prospective jurors and jurors.  Jurors, of course, think they are trying harder to do a good job by investigating on their own. Sometimes there are questions that arise during the trial, and jurors are not allowed to ask questions.  So how are they going to find answers they believe they must have to understand the trial they are to judge?  Why not just Google it?

The rules of evidence, developed over centuries of experience are intended to ensure the facts presented to the jury have been scrutinized by both parties to the lawsuit.  That is how the adversary is designed.  “You lose all that when the jurors go out on their own,” Professor Olin Guy Wellborn, a law professor at the University of Texas, said.

For these reasons, come courts are restricting the possession and use of cellphones during trials.   Some judges confiscate the phones during the days in the courtroom.  Most judges do not.  And no one can know what jurors do at night on their computers.  Computer access would cease only upon the sequestering of the jury, not a common practice except in long or very serious cases.

In the earlier-mentioned federal criminal trial in Florida before U.S. District Judge William Zloch, defense lawyer Peter Raben had fought charges for eight weeks of trial that his client had illegally sold prescription drugs over the internet.  After the entire trial had been completed and the jury was deliberating their verdict, one of the jurors contacted the judge to say another juror had admitted dong outside research on the case over the Internet.

After questioning the juror, the judge considered going forward with the trial without this juror, if the offending juror had not communicated the research to other jurors. That’s when the judge discovered that eight other jurors had done the same thing: looking up newspaper articles, conducting Google searches, reading definitions on Wickipedia, and searching for evidence that had been excluded from the trial by the judge.  “I was curious,” explained one of the jurors.