How To Fight False Criminal Charges
The Elvis impersonator could breath a sigh of relief. After he was arrested last week for suspicion of mailing ricin poison to several public officials, Paul Kevin Curtis was cleared of all charges Tuesday.
Curtis, who impersonates the King when not having brushes with the law, was being held on charges that he sent the deadly substance to President Obama, Mississippi Sen. Roger Wicker and a Mississippi judge. A search of Curtis’ house found no evidence that he was responsible for the mailings.
Curtis apparently did nothing wrong, but he still had his name smeared around newspapers throughout the country for several days. Authorities have now turned their attention to his acquaintance, James Dutschke, hinting that he may have tried to set Curtis up to take a fall as part of a long-standing feud. Dutschke was arrested and charged on Saturday.
The case has similarities to that in which scientist Steven J. Hatfill was named as a “person of interest” in 2001 anthrax mailings that were sent to several politicians and news organizations, causing the death of five people. Hatfill was never charged but his name was dragged through the mud for months in the news, at great detriment to his career. He eventually sued the government and received a $5.8 million settlement.
What steps should an innocent person take if accused or charged with a crime? Effectively, the same steps that a guilty defendant should take: find a good attorney and prepare a legal defense.
Whether defendants are actually innocent or not isn’t as relevant initially as what weight of evidence the police have against them. “I usually don’t want to know the answer to that,” says Marsh J. Halberg, founder of Halberg Criminal Defense in Minneapolis. “Don’t tell me if you were drunk or not. Just tell me what you told the cops.” Lawyers want to know what other people might say happened, and what kind of video evidence or recorded statements have already been made. “Actually getting my guy’s version of it, I don’t want to go there,” Halberg says.
Even a person who did nothing wrong would be advised to not speak with police until a lawyer gets a look at the situation. “I always start with six words of legal advice for people: Shut up, shut up, shut up,” says Halberg. Once the attorney has a handle on the case, he or she may decide it should be an exception and the defense could attempt to cooperate with the investigation or prosecution if there is strong evidence in favor of innocence.
Defense attorneys decide between a honey or vinegar approach. “I can go hat in hand to law enforcement or to the victim, with some kind of collaborative approach,” Halberg says, sharing documents and information that could exonerate the client and hoping the prosecution agrees to drop the case. “Or there’s the vinegar,” he says, “not saying anything, sitting back and filing motions, having evidentiary fights.”
In high profile cases, people who are wrongly accused have the double headache of both dealing with the legal issue as well as having their name associated with a crime in news reports, posted on the Internet for all eternity. “You can expunge the history of the charge but you still have modern media to deal with,” Halberg says.
As for seeking civil recourse if someone has been intentionally set up by either law enforcement or a private citizen, it is certainly possible. Criminal charges can also be brought against rogue prosecutors — witness Ken Anderson, the former Texas prosecutor just charged for withholding exonerating evidence from defense attorneys in the case of Michael Morton, who was recently cleared in the 1986 murder of his wife after spending nearly 25 years in prison.
However, short of actual malicious misconduct the bar is set quite high against bringing a case against an official. “There’s a pretty thick protection of prosecutorial discretion for charging people,” says Halberg, a former prosecutor himself. When clients tell him they want to get a case dismissed and then sue the cops, “We explain, learn from Napoleon at Waterloo,” he says. “Fight one battle at at time. Fight the criminal case first.”