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Thursday, May 1, 2014

4 Famous Legal Cases You Know Nothing About

There are lots of famous legal cases that you read about: The Michael Vick dog fighting case. The Kobe Bryant rape case. The Phil Spector murder case. Many cases are either extremely straight forward that you need no explanation about it, or the case has been discussed so much in the media that you know all you need to know about the case. However, in many instances, the media doesn't tell you the entire story. Shocking, right? Here are examples of legal cases that you have absolutely heard of, but probably do not know all that much about the specifics. Below are 4 Famous Legal Cases You Know Nothing About:


What You Think You Know: Tonya Harding conspired with her husband to take out fellow skater Nancy Kerrigan.WHHHHHHYYYYYYYY?!

The Actual Facts: On January 6, 1994, Nancy Kerrigan was attacked and clubbed in the knee while preparing for the U.S. Figure Skating Championships. That attacker, Shane Stant, was hired by Shawn Eckhardt, Harding's bodyguard, and Jeff Gillooly, Harding's husband. Gillooly eventually pled guilty to one count of racketeering in exchange for two years in prison, $100,000 fine, and to testify against Tonya Harding.

What Harding Was Actually Charged With: Conspiring To Hinder The Prosecution

Despite Gillooly, Eckhardt, and basically everyone else in the world saying that Harding was involved from the get go planning the attack of Kerrigan, that's not actually what Harding was charged with. What Harding did admit to, and later pled guilty to, was lying to the prosecution because she learned about the attack after it happened, and didn't say anything about it.

While it's entirely possible that Harding knew of the attack before it happened, and helped mastermind it (although I use the word "mastermind" very loosely), she was never charged with planning the attack. In the documentary "The Price Of Gold", Harding is interviewed some 20 odd years later and still claims that she didn't know anything about the attack prior, although the documentary makes her come across extremely poorly.

To play Devil's Advocate, I will say this. It's not unreasonable to think that Tonya Harding had nothing to do with the attack. It's easy for guys like Jeff Gillooly and Shawn Eckhardt to say Harding was involved when you're getting a reduced sentence in exchange. However, it was not because Harding was involved from the beginning that she faced criminal charges and an expulsion from the U.S. Figure Skating Association, it was because of what she knew and didn't say after the attack occurred.


What You Think You Know: After failing to charge Al Capone for a litany of crimes including murder, the U.S. Government finally is able to send Al Capone to jail for tax evasion.

The Actual Facts: After failing to charge Al Capone for a litany of crimes including murder, the U.S. Government finally is able to send Al Capone to jail for tax evasion.

What Al Capone Was Actually Charged With: Tax Evasion

OK, so it is very true that because the United States was not able to get many more serious charges to stick against Al Capone, so they were finally able to send Capone to jail for tax evasion. However, the story of how he actually got convicted is extremely interesting and something you probably didn't know about.

The big reason the Government couldn't pin any murder charges on Capone was because he would kill off any potential witnesses against him. The Government couldn't make any charges stick because there was no one who would testify against Capone.

By 1929, it was estimated that Capone was worth over $30 million. Secretary of the Treasury Andrew Mellon and President Harding then tried to get Al Capone sent to jail for tax evasion. However, that was not an easy task. Just because Al Capone was generating all this income without reporting it to the Government doesn't mean that his incarceration was inevitable. This was a man who murdered any potential witnesses that could be used against him for criminal charges, so what makes you think that witnesses would be any easier for his tax evasion trial? This is the fact that people seem to gloss over, or never learned in the first place. People assume that just because Capone was charged and eventually convicted for tax evasion means that trial must have been a cake walk. It was not.

Like any good defense attorney, Capone's tax attorney, Lawrence Mattingly, met with the prosecution to work out a plea agreement. Mattingly gave a letter to the prosecution which stated that Al Capone would agree to pay taxes to the U.S. Government between 1924-1929. That letter came to be known later as the Mattingly Letter. Capone's attorney worked out an agreement with the prosecution that Capone would only spend 2 years in jail and pay some fines/back taxes in exchange for the Government not having to put on a trial and risk Capone murdering multiple witnesses.

Unfortunately, the Judge in the case rejected the plea bargain and both sides went to trial.

The Government spent lots of money protecting a handful of witnesses to put on their case. The Government also introduced the Mattingly Letter into evidence using a 1927 U.S. Supreme Court decision, United States v. Sullivan, which stated the 5th Amendment right against self-incrimination didn't necessarily apply in all cases. The Mattingly Letter was integral in the jury's decision to find Al Capone guilty. A letter used in plea bargaining to help Al Capone avoid a lengthy jail sentence was now being used against him to send him to jail for a long time. How ironic.

But just because a jury finds someone guilty does not mean that the sentence will be harsh. Defense attorneys win their cases often (in both civil and criminal court) in sentencing alone. Unfortunately for Al Capone, the judge he was in front of was one who rejected a plea offer, and sentenced him to the maximum 11 years in jail.

As Tommy Blancha says in his recount of Al Capone on the show Drunk History, "[Capone] had it negotiated where he was only going to do two years in prison, but then the judge was like, 'we're not going to accept your plea, but we're going to take part of your plea that says you earned this much money and bust you for tax evasion, and sentence you to 11 years in prison.'" You know, that was a lot simpler than everything I wrote, My bad you guys, just forget everything you read.

Read here for an even more in depth account of the Al Capone case and trial.


What You Think You Know: Even though this happened fairly recently, chances are you don't actually know a whole lot about this, except that Martha Stewart went to jail for something to do with Insider Trading.

The Actual Facts: Sam Waksal ran a company called ImClone, in which Stewart had a lot of stock in. ImClone's newest cancer drug had just been rejected by the FDA, but the information was not yet public. Waksal told Peter Bacanovic, Stewart's Merill Lynch broker, who then relayed this information to Stewart herself. Before the FDA news became public, Stewart sold her ImClone shares before the stock price eventually plummeted and avoided a huge loss.

What Stewart Was Actually Convicted Of: Conspiracy, Obstruction of a Government Investigation, and Two Counts of Making False Statements

Notice how you don't see "Insider Trading" anywhere in there. Insider trading is a very specific type of criminal conduct and is different than Securities Fraud (which Stewart was originally charged with). The reason Stewart was never charged with insider trading, because, on her end, it's totally not insider trading. While what Sam Waksal did IS considered insider trading, the way the law is written, Stewart's actions is nowhere close to being considered insider trading.

By the way, Martha Stewart, in addition to the charges she was convicted of, was indicted of Securities Fraud. Not for selling her stock, but for making statements she made after the fact in relation to her own company's stock. And that charge was later dismissed as the judge ruled that no reasonable juror could convict Stewart of that crime.

Lastly, let's discuss the two counts of making false statements. One of those false statements was that Stewart claimed she sold her ImClone stock because she had a long standing agreement with Peter Bacanovic that if the stock dropped under $60/shares she'd sell and that's why she sold her stock as opposed to, you know, the whole insider trading thing. Completely reasonable guilty verdict. The other false statement? That Stewart lied about when phone calls taken by her secretary to Peter Bacanovic took place. Call me old fashioned, but in the midst of selling stocks to avoid a huge loss, when your secretary takes phone calls seems pretty irrelevant.

Now Stewart faces civil charges from the SEC from selling her stock, but criminal charges? Nope. So even though every article you read talked about how she sold her stock, that's totally not what she went to jail for. It's because she lied about it afterwards.


What You Think You Know: Some lady accidentally spills coffee on herself after driving away from a McDonald's drive thru, and not only does she win a butt load of money from the corporation, but now every damned cup of coffee you get has that stupid "WARNING: Beverage May Be Hot" label on it.

The Actual Facts: 71 year old Stella Liebeck ordered coffee at a McDonald's drive thru in Albuquerque, NM. She was actually the passenger in the car and the car was in park in the parking lot. Liebeck placed the coffee in her lap and removed the lid so she could put in cream and sugar. Upon doing so, coffee spilled all over her. And that little spill? It put her in the hospital as Ms. Liebeck suffered third burns. (WARNING: You click to look at picture of her buns at your own peril. You can't unsee this). Ms. Liebeck suffered third degree burns to her legs, buttocks, and genitals, and spent 8 days in the hospital suffering through multiple skin graphs.

What McDonald's Was Actually Found Guilty Of: Products Liability

Ms. Liebeck originally sued McDonald's for $20,000, which was just to cover the costs of her medical bills. How selfish of her! McDonald's wouldn't agree to settle for anything more than $800 (the total cost of profits McDonald's makes on 2 days worth of coffee sales). Therefore, the case went to trial.

At trial, it came out that not only was McDonald's coffee absurdly hot, but they had received over 700 different complaints that their coffee was too hot from across the country and still did nothing about it. How hot was McDonald's coffee you ask? It was 180 degrees. To put this into perspective, a hot tub is only 100-105 degrees. Competitor coffees? They're only about 130 degrees. McDonald's would keep their coffee 50-60 degrees above coffee you get everywhere else. A representative from McDonald's even admitted during a deposition that you could not drink their coffee at 180 degrees because it would burn your throat. But damn it, people still want to drink their coffee hot 5 hours after they get to work and McDonald's is going to make that happen!

A jury found McDonald's guilty of products liability considering they were aware of a problem and did nothing about it. They initially awarded Stella Liebeck $160,000 in compensatory damages (which included medical bills and pain suffering) as well as 2.7 millions dollars in punitive damages because McDonald's knew they were doing something wrong and didn't do anything about it. However, that same jury also determined that Stella Liebeck was 20% at fault and McDonald's was 80% at fault, because of course Stella Liebeck is partially is at fault. Seriously, McDonald's messed up, but Ms. Liebeck messed up as well and that fact was taken into account into her awarded damages.

However, despite the high jury verdict, that's not what Ms. Liebeck ended up receiving. The trial judge reduced the punitive damage amount to $640,000 and McDonald's and Stella Liebeck later settled for an undisclosed amount outside of Court. Oh, and another part of that settlement agreement? Ms. Liebeck signed a confidentially agreement meaning that she wasn't allowed to speak about what happened to her. But do you know who else was allowed to speak about this case? McDonald's.

Source: The documentary "Hot Coffee" that you can currently stream on Netflix



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