Tuesday, March 18, 2014

TLC '05 Alum and Faculty Member Deb Ellis frees an innocent man from death row

For years, when she’d walk into her downtown St. Paul office, criminal defense lawyer Deborah Ellis would see a photo of Louisiana death row inmate Glenn Ford perched at eye level on the reception desk.  It was “a reminder to fight the good fight,” she said.
On Tuesday night, Ellis watched on television as Ford, 64, walked out of Louisiana State Prison in Angola. He was one of the longest-serving death row inmates in U.S. history to be exonerated and released. “I’ve been crying ever since,” Ellis said.
The rare and dramatic moment came hours after a judge granted the state’s request to vacate Ford’s murder conviction. And it came after three decades of exhausting, discouraging work and failed legal appeals by Ellis and other attorneys, including several from Minnesota. In 1984, Ford, who is black, was convicted of first-degree murder by an all-white jury in the November 1983 killing of Isadore Rozeman in his jewelry store-home in Shreveport, La.

For more of the story, go to


Saturday, March 8, 2014

4-0 for NOT GUILTY verdicts since graduating from the Trial Lawyers College in July '13

TLC Grad Bob Vogel (July '13) writes the following.  Congratulations to you Bob, and to your client.  He was very fortunate to have you as his counsel.

I had a rape trial over the last two days. My client was falsely accused of raping a mentally retarded, autistic man for whom he was the caregiver. The State began its investigation after receiving a well intentioned, but inaccurate 911 call. A police officer was called, and the officer reported that he observed nothing out of the ordinary. However, a police detective decided that something had happened. He just had a feeling that my client was lying. After two interviews with the police in which he explained that nothing had happen and the caller was mistaken, the detective engaged the "Reid Technique"(an insidious interrogation technique responsible for thousands of false confessions) and used a polygraph to confront my client and intimidate him. They claimed they had proof they did not have and bullied him into signing a false statement. The statement was not a direct confession, but close enough that they could then leverage it into an indictment. They had no other proof - none, not a stitch, except what they had manufactured. They then set about gathering any other coincidental information that would support their position.

I used the TLC Voir Dire approach and really had a great time of interaction with the jury. We discussed under what circumstances someone might make a false confession. Which really was helpful later on when it came up during cross. We talked about many other things which then became touchstones during the trial and closing. We had a great jury, which I attribute to the TLC Voir Dire approach. From there, I told my client's story in each of the phases of the trial, through all of the witnesses.

I had an amazing experience during the closing. I had prepared all the areas I wanted to talk about, but as my turn was approaching, I found that I had some unexplained emotions churning up inside me. I took some moments to identify what I was feeling. I finally realized that the thing about the case that most affected me was the terror I felt at the monstrous crime the state was trying to commit. They had use all of their power and resources to create a case against an innocent person based on little or no evidence. Doing that, they put my client at risk for 15 years of his life and the permanent ruin of his reputation. They'd done lousy police work and relied on coercing a false confession from my client to make their case. To me, this was terrifying. It clearly demonstrated that any of us are vulnerable to the machinations of the State if they decide to prosecute us.

The Detective did not go into the interrogation seeking the truth. He went into the interrogation seeking a confession. What he got was false, he knew it, and went ahead and pushed forward anyway. Fortunately, 12 heroic citizens decided not to let them get away with it. They came back with a not guilty verdict in less than an hour.

By the way, this makes me 4 and 0 on jury trials applying the Spence/TLC method. I've got a first degree murder trial coming up in a month, so keep me in your thoughts and prayers.

All the best,

Bob Vogel (July '13)

Friday, March 7, 2014

$10.7 million verdict won by Randal Kelly (July '10) and Mike O'Connell (July '11) in worker safety case

TLC Trial Fires matter:  Major oil field worker safety case won by Colorado Trial Lawyers Randal Kelly (July ’10) and Mike O’Connell (July ’11)
     A $10.7 million verdict was delivered by a Greeley, CO jury in a very complicated oil field worker safety case which had previously been dismissed in a lower court, and was revitalized by TLC July ’10 Grad Randal Kelly, with the assistance of Mike O’Connell (July ’11).  Before trial, Randy was offered $225,000 for his client to settle. 
Randy took over this case in September 2010 after it had been badly handled by his client’s previous attorney. In September 2011, Randy got the Colorado Supreme Court to grant a C.A.R. 21 Petition to reinstate the critical claim against the critical defendant, Schneider Energy, which had been dismissed by the trial court. Upon winning that determination, and going back to the trial court before a different judge (the first judge had since retired), the surviving widow and family of Reyes Garcia was finally given an opportunity to tell their story to a jury. 
     Reyes Garcia was a gas-well worker on what is called in the industry “a work-over crew”. After wells have been drilled and “frac-ed”, this crew was responsible to clean out the remaining debris and contaminated water from the wells so that they could then be put into production.  These crews use three primary pieces of equipment to do this:  a rig truck with a 40' tower and a drill over the well head, a huge pump to circulate the water, and a gigantic water tank called a “flat tank”.  During the process, gas can be released at the flat tank if a gas pocket is hit or if the debris coming out is real gassy.  The primary safety mechanism for the men is the spacing of the equipment since the pump and the rig are combustion sources. Distance and time equals safety on this type of worksite.
     Four different entities were on the site with layers of immunity, indemnity, master-service agreements, workers comp immunity, employee-employer obfuscation, sub-contracting and statutory employment issues. Two “non-parties” alleged to be at fault- Noble Energy (the well "operator"), and Leed Energy (the employer of Reyes Garcia which was responsible for providing men and equipment) - were immune from suit, but their negligence was nevertheless in issue.  Schneider Energy was the entity hired to supervise well operations and they hired William Smith to run the operations at the site - including safety.  Smith and Schneider Energy both claimed that Smith was an independent contractor.  Smith’s lawyer claimed that Smith was an employee of Noble, which would have also made Smith immune from suit, and Schneider Energy off the hook.
     While a gross simplification of the issues, the gist is that The American Petroleum Institute (“API”) recommends spacing of 100' in between each piece of equipment.  On this particular site, the equipment was spaced less than 75' apart, reducing the amount of time available for the workers to shut down the well and avoid an explosion if something did go wrong.   In July 2007, something went terribly wrong on this site when the crew detected gas coming from the flat tank and began shut down procedures.  Reyes was at the pump.  He was enveloped in flames in a flash fire, burned over 80% of his body, and fought to survive at the Western States Burn Unit. Reyes died on September 8, 2007 without ever speaking with his family again. 
     In the face of these facts, the defense paraded a number of witnesses who had never heard of the API spacing standard, and the ones who had heard of it said it wasn't important and/or not relevant for these operations.  The defense also argued that any fault should be attributed to Leed Energy, (Reyes Garcia’s employer), because Leed had delivered and set up the equipment at the site. The defense claimed that Reyes Garcia was at fault because he voluntarily moved into the danger zone. They also claimed that Smith was immune from suit as he was “technically” a Noble employee. It was a knife fight. Randy and Mike fought the defense for 2 hours the night before closing on an “inherently dangerous activity” jury instruction, which they ended up convincing the Judge to give, and which raised the standard of care for the jury to consider. 
     Randy handled all the liability witnesses, the experts and Lorena Garcia (Reyes' wife and a beautiful human being), as well as voir dire, open and close.  Mike came in a month before trial and handled the story that the family had to tell as well as the burn surgeon.   Louise Lipman and Josh Karton came to Denver a couple weeks before the trial to help with the family.  Louise had originally helped Randy and the family prepare for the first trial, in 2011, which was stayed when the Colorado Supreme Court took the case away from the first judge. It took almost five years to get this case to a jury.
     Mike O’Connell writes:  “In the end, we ended up with an all male jury and a less than enthusiastic female alternate who was allowed to deliberate.   I can't begin to tell you how complex this case was.  There is probably not another attorney in Colorado who could have handled these issues besides Randy.  Ironically, his April 4, 2013 Durango verdict played into this because of the claim that Smith was a "statutory employee" (sic) of Noble - which would have gutted the case, and nobody knows this issue better than Mr. Kelly.  Randy was the very definition of what the TLC embodies.  I am, and will always be, deeply moved by how he handled this case and the trial.”
     The trial was held in Greeley, Colorado (Weld County) and was tried before Judge Todd Taylor.  The jury found Smith was indeed an employee of Schneider Energy.  They found this activity to be inherently dangerous.  And they found no comparative - 100% Smith (and of course, all imputed to Schneider on the respondent claim).  The verdict was $2,000,000 non-economic damages; $4.5 million on economic damages (medicals and lost future earnings); and with interest compounded over 5 years, the total verdict for Mr. Garcia’s surviving widow and family is $10,700,000.   [Accounting for some cap issues, the final judgment with interest will total $8.5 million.] 
     Note from TLC:  While some cases have huge verdicts, many do not.  But the consistent factor is that trial lawyers across this country fight for justice; they represent the common man who must go against typically huge corporate or government entities, with odds that are most often overwhelming.  Our congratulations to TLC grads Randal Kelly, Mike O’Connell and every other trial lawyer in this country who commits his or her life daily to obtaining justice.  Way to go!