Monday, June 01, 2009

Downside of Being a Good Samaritan

This post is about a case that demonstrates the hazards that can sometimes attend being a Good Samaritan. The case also raises an evidentiary issue.

The case is State v. Mellert, 2009 WL 1365024 (Ohio Court of Appeals 2009). Here are the facts that led to Karen Mellert being charged with knowingly making a false statement with the purpose of committing a theft offense:
[William] Oakes . . . lives by himself in a three bedroom house. One evening, he had his friend Liz over, who lives at a hotel. Liz brought Ms. Mellert with her, who also lived at the hotel. When Mr. Oakes learned from Liz that Ms. Mellert could not afford to stay at the hotel any longer because she was out of money, he offered to let her stay at his house in one of the extra bedrooms.

According to Mr. Oakes, Ms. Mellert stayed with him for six or seven weeks. She did the grocery shopping, cooked for them, and cleaned the house. Her boyfriend sometimes came by to take her out. One afternoon, however, Mr. Oakes received a call from his financial advisor asking him about a letter he had received that directed him to `cut a check for $5,000.00 made payable to Karen L. Mellert, as a gift.’ The letter identified Mr. Oakes's account number and universal ID number. Mr. Oakes said the financial advisor called him about the letter because he usually did all of his transactions by telephone and the financial advisor had never seen Ms. Mellert's name before on any of his documents.
State v. Mellert, supra. At Mellert’s trial, Oakes testified
that he did not write the letter. He said he did not know Ms. Mellert's middle initial or how to spell her last name. He also said that the signature at the bottom of the letter was not his, noting that it misspelled his name. He further said that Ms. Mellert regularly used his computer and had access to his account information.
State v. Mellert, supra. The opinion does not say, but I assume the prosecution believed Mellert accessed Oakes’ computer – with his permission, so we don't have an unauthorized access charge – and thereby gained access to his account information. She may also have used the computer to write and print the letter, but that’s just a guess.

The jury convicted Mellert on the false statement in furtherance of theft charge, which an Ohio statute defines as follows: “[n]o person shall knowingly make a false statement ... when . . . [t]he statement is made with purpose to commit . . . a theft offense.” Ohio Revised Code § 2921.13(A)(9). I’m always amazed at the variety of crimes that crop up in state statutes; I’m not exactly sure what the point of this statute is. I assume the idea is that if you lie in order to commit theft, you’re compounding the “harm” you’ve inflicted and so should face liability for the lie (the deception) aspect of the theft.

Anyway, Mellert was convicted. She appealed the conviction, arguing that “the State failed to produce sufficient evidence to support her conviction.” State v. Mellert, supra. Specifically, Mellert argued that there “was only circumstantial evidence that she wrote the letter”, which was true. State v. Mellert, supra. And that brings me to the evidentiary issue I noted earlier.

Wikipedia does a nice job of distinguishing circumstantial evidence from the other type of evidence, direct evidence:
If a witness testifies that the defendant was seen entering a house, then screaming was heard, then the defendant was seen leaving, carrying a bloody knife, that is circumstantial evidence; if a witness testifies that he/she actually saw the defendant stabbing the victim, that is direct evidence.
Here’s part of a jury instruction California courts use to explain the difference between direct and circumstantial evidence to jurors:
Evidence consists of the testimony of witnesses, writings, material objects, or anything presented to the senses and offered to prove the existence or non-existence of a fact.
Evidence is either direct or circumstantial.

Direct evidence is evidence that directly proves a fact. It is evidence which by itself, if found to be true, establishes that fact.

Circumstantial evidence is evidence that, if found to be true, proves a fact from which an inference of the existence of another fact may be drawn.

An inference is a deduction of fact that may logically and reasonably be drawn from another fact or group of facts established by the evidence.

[It is not necessary that facts be proved by direct evidence. They also may be proved by circumstantial evidence or by a combination of direct and circumstantial evidence. Both direct and circumstantial evidence are acceptable as a means of proof. Neither is entitled to any greater weight than the other.]
California Jury Instructions – Criminal (Spring 2009). (The brackets in the last paragraph were added by the people who drafted this instruction, not by me. They give a judge the option of including that portion of the instruction, or not.]

In the Wikipedia example, the witness saw facts from which he inferred the defendant stabbed the victim. In the Mellert case, the only evidence the prosecution had to prove Mellert knowingly made a false statement to commit theft was circumstantial evidence.

As I noted above, Mellert seemed to be arguing that circumstantial evidence, by itself, was not enough to support a conviction. That, as the Calfornia jury instruction makes very clear, is not true. I’m always amused when I see commentators on TV talking about how “all the prosecution has is circumstantial evidence,” as if that is inherently suspect or inadequate. It is not. As the California jury instruction makes very clear, a conviction can be based purely on circumstantial evidence, as long as it proves the defendant’s guilt beyond a reasonable doubt.

The Ohio Court of Appeals concluded that the evidence in the Mellert case was sufficient to prove her guilt beyond a reasonable doubt:
The State presented sufficient circumstantial evidence for the jury to infer that Ms. Mellert had both the motive and opportunity to draft the letter. It was logical for the jury to believe that, since Ms. Mellert was the beneficiary of the intended transfer, she was the one who sent the letter to the financial advisor. This Court, therefore, concludes that Ms. Mellert's conviction is supported by sufficient evidence.
State v. Mellert, supra.

I guess I agree with that; I don’t really know why I wouldn’t. For some reason, I have a little discomfort with convicting her without having a little more evidence . . . say, her fingerprints on the letter or a computer forensics expert’s testimony that she did, indeed, access Oakes’ financial information at or around the time the letter was written, something like that. I’m not questioning her guilt; I’m just saying the evidence of her guilt doesn’t exactly overwhelm me.


Anonymous said...

Based only on those facts of the case presented in your post, I would likewise be somewhat squeamish about the conviction.

If she was wise enough to employ the "I don't have any idea how this letter came into existence" verbal defense and faithfully stick with it, this doesn't seem to meet the beyond a reasonable doubt threshold.

Anonymous said...

This a case of stupid making and even bigger stuipd decision to challenge there own guilty actions... In other words if your the comissioner of a crime that you did indee commit then face the music, that is of course unless your crazy enough in your own head to believe you can cheat the law, break rules because you think that some how they don't apply to you, an oh by the way I'm older and a woman at best who would never hurt a fly, well news flash you can only burn your bridges so many times until they break, and in this case the bridge is broken.