Court Roundup

Indiana

Judge to go "above and beyond" for fair trial

CROWN POINT, Ind. (AP) -- A Lake County judge says he is going "above and beyond the call of duty" to make sure a black Gary man gets an impartial jury for his murder trial.

The Times of Munster reported Sunday that Kevin Isom could face the death penalty if he is convicted in the August 2007 shooting deaths of his wife, Cassandra Isom, 40, and her two children, Michael Moore, 16, and Ci'Andria Cole, 13.

Lake Criminal Court Judge Thomas Stefaniak, lawyers for Isom and the prosecutor's office have spent more than four months combing through a randomly selected list of 500 county residents as they try to find an impartial jury. The trial is set to begin Sept. 26.

Stefaniak has acknowledged that jury selection will be difficult, in part because Isom is black in a county where there is debate over whether he can get a fair trial from white residents. Gary is predominantly black, but Lake County is mostly white.

The judge ordered two black women from the jury pool into his court last week to explain why they hadn't completed questionnaires. He ordered the arrest of one who didn't attend the hearing, but she showed up before she could be arrested.

He also ordered his staff to investigate the demographics of an additional 44 people who didn't show up for jury duty.

"This is above and beyond the call of duty, but the more people who fill out jury qualification forms from this random pool gives the defendant the greatest chance of having a jury of his peers and to take prospective appeal issues off the table," Stefaniak said.

Stefaniak also said he would not put up with lawyers using race as an excuse to exclude whites from the jury.

That's a strategy Stefaniak has denied defenses before.

The judge was criticized for his handling five years ago of jury selection in the trial of Darryl Jeter, a 24-year-old black Chicago man convicted of murdering 27-year-old Indiana State Police Trooper Scott Patrick.

Jeter's lawyers argued to the Indiana Supreme Court that Stefaniak denied Jeter a fair trial by denying their attempts to exclude white jurors.

But the Supreme Court agreed with Stefaniak that Jeter was entitled to an impartial jury based on a cross-section of the county's demographics. Blacks constitute roughly one-quarter of the northwest Indiana county's population.

Isom's lawyers have similar concerns to Jeter's, and public defender Casey McCloskey said the jury pool is slanting toward white-dominated southern Lake County.

Nebraska

Omaha man convicted of fraud to be resentenced

OMAHA, Neb. (AP) -- A resentencing date has been set for an Omaha man convicted of securities fraud that cost investors millions of dollars.

Bryan Behrens was indicted in April 2009 on 21 federal charges. He pleaded guilty last year to securities fraud and was ordered to spend five years in prison and repay $6.8 million to 20 investors.

But he appealed his sentence, and the 8th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals sent his case back to U.S. District Court in Omaha for resentencing. The appeals court ruled last month that the lower court erred when it refused to allow Behrens to assert a "no knowledge" defense at his sentencing. That provision states that no person shall be subject to imprisonment if he can prove he had no knowledge of the federal rule or regulation.

Behrens will be resentenced Oct. 14.

Federal prosecutors have said Behrens, who founded the Omaha-based 21st Century Financial Group, collected more than $8 million from about 25 investors between 2002 and 2007. Behrens defrauded mostly elderly investors by soliciting millions under false pretenses, failed to invest those funds as promised and misappropriated and converted investors' funds to his other business entities, according to the U.S. attorney's office.

Prosecutors said much of that money went to Behrens' lavish lifestyle that included two homes, several luxury cars, jewelry and a Husker bus he used to take friends and family to tailgating parties at Nebraska football games.

South Dakota

Judge dismisses Sioux lawsuit on Black Hills money

PIERRE, S.D. (AP) -- A federal judge says individual members of the Sioux tribes cannot continue a lawsuit seeking their share of hundreds of millions of dollars awarded in old court cases for the improper taking of the Black Hills and other land.

U.S. District Judge Lawrence Piersol dismissed a lawsuit filed by about 20 members of the Sioux tribes. The judge says individual tribal members have no legal standing to seek the money because it was awarded to the tribes. He says the courts have no jurisdiction over the dispute because the tribes have refused to become involved in the case.

All eight present-day Sioux tribes have refused to accept money awarded for the Black Hills in a 1980 decision by the U.S. Supreme Court. The tribes instead have sought return of land.

Mississippi

Jackson council may soon resolve police crash suit

JACKSON, Miss. (AP) -- After the city's latest loss at the state Supreme Court, Jackson's City Council is set to decide its next legal step toward resolving a lawsuit filed by a couple injured when a Jackson police car crashed into their vehicle during a chase in 2006.

A Hinds County judge awarded Eric and Kristina Law $500,000 in 2008 for the crash. He assessed 40 percent of the blame in the accident on the police officer and 60 percent on a fleeing driver. In April, the Supreme Court rejected the city's argument that Eric Law was partially to blame.

The City Council is expected to take a vote on resolution of the claims on Tuesday, according to The Clarion-Ledger.

The state Supreme Court upheld the lower court's ruling that a Jackson police officer "acted in reckless disregard for the public's safety" while pursuing the fleeing motorist who crashed into the Laws' vehicle on June 11, 2006. Late last month, the court denied the city's request to rehear the arguments.

The city contended that if Eric Law had "kept a proper lookout" and heeded the officer's blue lights, the accident would not have happened. But neither Eric Law, a local television meteorologist, nor his wife testified that they had heard police sirens or had seen the officer's patrol car approaching the south Jackson intersection where the accident occurred.

The Laws' injuries included several broken bones, and each underwent multiple surgeries.

Ward 4 Councilman Frank Bluntson, who also is council president, said he will follow the advice of the city's legal department when the issue comes up Tuesday.

Ward 3 Councilman Kenneth Stokes said he intends to do the same, voicing his support for City Attorney Pieter Teeuwissen.

"If our final remedy has been exhausted and that is to the Supreme Court, then it is time for the city of Jackson to move on," Stokes said. "If that means we must honor what the lower court has ruled, then we must follow the law."

Published: Tue, Aug 9, 2011

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