Mrs. Smith was one of the nicest ladies I had ever met. She was single and had a good job working for a state agency. She connected Coxwell & Associates because she was charged by Indictment with committing an unlawful hoax. According to the prosecution Mrs. Smith was mad at the water department because they had cut her water off a few times due to nonpayment of the bill. Early one morning on the way to work Mrs. Smith stopped by the drop-off at the water department. She reached into her back seat to grab an envelope to put her check and water bill in the envelope and drop it in the box. Mrs. Smith’s back seat was like most people’s car-it was filled with everything you can imagine. You might say it was messy. Mrs. Smith sealed the envelope with her check and money order inside and headed hurriedly to work.
That afternoon Mrs. Smith got a call from law enforcement. She did not know there was a small amount of white substance in the bottom of the envelope she used to pay her water bill. When a water department employee opened up the envelope and saw the substance she immediately thought it was anthrax or some similar substance. The police were alerted and the entire building was evacuated. The Department of Homeland Security, Department of Environmental Quality, the F.B.I. and other law enforcement agencies responded to this perceived danger. It was big news but Mrs. Smith did not know it at the time. Mrs. Smith was dutifully at work. The police and F.B.I. called up to her work and asked Mrs. Smith to come by the station. They did not tell here why. The police indicated it was just a routine matter. This is a common law enforcement technique so they can surprise and shock the accused citizen.
When Mrs. Smith arrived at the station she was put into a room filled with several law enforcement officers. She was secretly being recorded by a video machine. For the next several hours Mrs. Smith was “hot boxed” by all the officers and agents. They repeatedly demanded that she confess to deliberately putting the white powder in the envelope to scare the water department. To her credit, Mrs. Smith would not confess to something she did not do. Law enforcement felt like they went through a lot due to the powder scare and they wanted Mrs. Smith to pay! She was indicted for committing a hoax.
Before we started the trial the one thing that I thought we needed to explain was how did the powder get in the envelope? Even Mrs. Smith did not know. I eventually decided it was just one of those mistakes that happen and are without explanation, like having your keys or phone in your hand one minute, and the next second not having the slightest idea where they are. I used that approach in the jury selection. In opening my overall theme was this:
This is a case about protecting us all from our mistakes. The little mistakes and the big mistakes. The innocent mistakes we all make every day and all the time through inattention and when rushed. And while the police look at many mistakes with an evil eye, if you look at them as just everyday mistakes, then you can see the innocence in them.
Of course there was much more to the opening since I needed to cover the facts, but that was the overriding theme. The prosecution called as many law enforcement officers as they could. For dramatic effect the prosecution also had an officer to come into the courtroom in a Hazmat suit. When my partner finished with his cross-examination, it really looked like a funny incident. This was a short trial. If I recall it was only two day. The prosecution gave strong closing argument. You may recall that the prosecution get to go first and last in the closing argument, and I was sandwiched in between. The jury returned a verdict of not guilty. I am convinced it was the careful voir dire and opening that set the stage for the jury to understand we all make mistakes. By the way, I did not put Mrs. Smith on to testify. I felt the case was better without her testimony.