Tuesday, July 24, 2007
A flaw in our judicial system
(Note: The following post appeared as my column in last week's Newton County News.)
A few weeks ago, I wrote about how the taxpayers are footing the bill so Edward Meerwald, the drunk driver who killed James Dodson, 68, of Neosho, and Dodson's eight-year-old granddaughter Jessica Mann, can appeal his sentence. While I have no problem with indigent defendants being represented by court-appointed attorneys, Meerwald pleaded guilty and received a seven-year sentence. After he discovered he did not like prison, he decided to appeal his own choice and we are the ones who have to pay for it.
I would like to be able to tell you that the Meerwald case is an aberration, but cases like his are scattered all over our judicial system.
A particularly galling one is an appeal from McDonald County Circuit Court, on a case that started in Newton County. On Jan. 27, 2005, Gary Reed Blankenship, 57, Neosho, was arrested following one of Diamond Police Department officer Jim Murray's internet sex stings. Murray entered a chat room pretending to be an underaged girl. Blankenship propositioned the "teen," arranged for a meeting with her to have sex, then was arrested when he arrived and was charged with eight counts of possession of child pornography, one count of enticing a child, and one count of promoting obscene material to a minor.
At the time of his arrest, Blankenship was a highly paid official with O'Sullivan Industries in Lamar, and reportedly was doing some of his trolling on company computers. His first lawyer was Dee Wampler, Springfield, probably the best criminal defense lawyer in southwest Missouri.
Probably the best advice Blankenship could have been given was to stay off the computer, but if he was given that advice, he did not follow it. He e-mailed his co-workers at O'Sullivan, claiming to be innocent and asking them to help him by serving as character references.
A portion of the e-mail read:
"I pray that each of you know me well enough to realize that I am not guilty of the charges that have been made. Of the 10 counts made against me, I will officially be arraigned on only one count - the other nine will be dropped.
"Last, I am sending this to each of you requesting your help. Most of you have either been contacted by, or have a message from Betty Jackson, secretary to my lawyer, Dee Wampler. I had to put together a list of character references and I could think of none better than the people I have spent a lot of time with for the past several years.The decision is up to you as to whether you wish to provide any comment regarding my character but I would appreciate your comments.
"I hope things are going well for all of you and the new O'Sullivan is beginning to shape up. I wish all of you health and happiness, and hope to talk with you soon.
"Thanks again for your support."
Apparently, those character references were not forthcoming. The charges Blankenship said would be dropped were never dropped until he entered his guilty plea.
On Oct. 19, 2006, Blankenship pleaded guilty to possession of child pornography and promoting obscenity. He was sentenced to eight years in prison. Five months later, despite the fact that Blankenship was the one who entered the guilty plea, he filed an appeal.
Judge Kevin Selby ruled on March 29 that Blankenship, a former high-powered executive, could proceed as a pauper, meaning the taxpayers will pay for a public defender to represent him.
And this week, we learned that not only are we paying for public defenders to file appeals for people who pleaded guilty of their own free will, but we are also using taxpayer dollars to pay for a lawyer for someone who does not even want one.
McDonald County Circuit Court Judge John LePage, the latest in the merry-go-round of judges who have heard Granby resident Martin Lindstedt's case, rejected Lindstedt's request to represent himself, instead appointing a public defender. The decision was made even though Lindstedt does not want a public defender, and it has already been determined that he has more than enough assets to pay for his own lawyer.
What should be particularly worrisome is a comparison to the recent murder trial of Gary Black in Jasper County. Black, who was already being tried for a second time for the 1998 murder of Missouri Southern State College student-athlete Jason Johnson, will have to be convicted a third time...because the judge refused to allow Black to act as his own attorney.
Is this any way to run a judicial system?