Legal Beagle
by © Edgar E. DeLong LCDR USN (RET)


I should have been a lawyer. I got my first taste of the legal profession as a Lieutenant Commander in the U.S. Navy on board the USS Columbus when a young sailor who had gone AWOL to be home for the birth of his first child requested that I defend him in a Court Martial. I won the case only because I studied the Uniform Code of Military Justice and found that there was always a loophole. But even more important I learned that the members of the military courts were not at all prepared and the Trial Counsel (equivalent to a prosecutor in the civilian world) assigned by the commanding officer was usually so busy with his other work that he didn't apply the necessary study required to win his case. It wasn't long before I was being requested as defense counsel whenever a real lawyer wasn't required. After awhile, the Commanding Officer called me to his cabin and told me I was making a travesty of justice. He wanted convictions and he wanted them now!! My response was that he should appoint more qualified Trial Counsels if that's what he wanted. He did - He appointed me, which effectively prohibited anyone from using me as a Defense Counsel.

Back to that sailor. It seems he had really tried hard to get permission to go on leave to be home for the birth. His division officer had fooled around with the application until it was too late and never forwarded it up the line. The young sailor was ready to do anything to be with his bride who had no parents near to help. I emphasized with him. I realized that going AWOL was not the solution but I felt that I would have done the same thing in the same circumstances. The way to beat the rap was to in effect prosecute his division officer in the eyes of the five officer court martial board and make them think, as I did, what they would do in similar circumstances. I did it and he was found not guilty. I, however, was not very popular around the Wardroom with other officers for awhile. When a case appeared to be so serious that I knew a real lawyer was needed, I recommended to the accused that he hire a civilian lawyer in Norfolk, who I'll call Vince for safeties sake. He specialized in military law. I would be assigned as his assistant and we never lost.

One such case was a sailor who was AWOL over 30 days (legally desertion), stole a car, got drunk, bought drugs and rear ended a police car. How in the world do you beat that? Vince said the desertion charge for over 30 days was no good since the sailor had come back on base to get his pay check and had not been arrested. He didn't really steal the car, since he often borrowed this car from a buddy. True, he had drank too much but as a result of that he wasn't responsible for the accident and as for the Drugs in the trunk? Well it wasn't his car and he didn't know how they got there. The only charge that stuck was simple AWOL, a far cry from the more serious desertion. It cost the sailor a $700 fee. Vince was very close to being unethical but navy lawyers always came to watch and marvel.

I won a few cases as Trial Counsel in the same manner, often asking a witness a prohibited question which I knew would let the board know what the real situation was. They would be instructed to ignore the question but it was already in their mind and I knew how to play them from that point on. During a recess I once overheard a young sailor who had beaten up a younger man, say to other crewmen when he didn't know I was listening, “Yeah, I did it and I'm glad! I'd do it again if I got the chance.” His inexperienced defense counsel put him on the stand where I got to cross examine and when I asked if he had said those words, his counsel immediately objected as heresay. I withdrew the question, but the board had heard and I knew I would win.

I enjoyed all the legal work in the military. It was like a hobby. When I retired I was offered a job by Vince as his assistant and investigator, but by then, I was being sought after for my electronics and computer background more than my legal experience

Being a good citizen, I registered and voted and it wasn't long before I was being called for Jury duty. My wife soon started getting called too. We always went and did our civic duty. At that time, Bill, (I won't mention his last name) was Sheriff of Virginia Beach and his wife was a member of the Princess Anne Womens Club, as was my wife. We used to work the kitchen during the annual antique shows. Bill cooked the turkey's and I assisted. I said “Bill, I know that Jury duty is supposed to be random, but it seems to me that every member and spouse of the Womens Club seems to get picked. Are you sure you're not helping out some?” He said “Ed, I wouldn't do a thing like that. We use computers and it is purely random.” I still think it was rigged.

I served on four criminal and three civil juries in Virginia Beach and two criminal federal juries in Norfolk before I finally found that if I told the judge and lawyers about all this experience they would cut me from the jury. My wife served on five at the beach. I really believe we did our civic duty.

The only case that really sticks in my mind was a young Veterinarian, who was accused of rape by one of his employees after a New Years office party. I was elected Foreman by my peers consisting of eight women and four men. We all heard a really fine defense attorney bring out the facts of the case without badgering the plaintiff. The prosecutor tried his best but was ineffective. There had been a great party, complete with pictures, some of which included the plaintiff and were very suggestive. The Doctor was handsome and apparently sought after by this young lady, who stayed after everyone had left and ultimately had sex with the accused. She went home and he went on another date. Three weeks later, when after questioning , her father discovered what had happened, she claimed she had been raped. The father was incensed and called the police. Now we had the job of deciding who was telling the truth. Judges give juries written instructions which detail exactly what must be proven in order to convict and each element must be addressed. Reasonable doubt is defined clearly, in writing, and the jury is sent out to discuss the case and return a verdict. I told the jury “We have all heard the same evidence, so lets have a secret ballot with no names. Simply write Guilty or Not Guilty on a paper and we will see where we stand.” 10 of the twelve papers came back “Not Guilty” but you have to have complete agreement, so I asked who had voted Guilty and would they explain to the rest of us why they thought as they did. One was a middle aged man who said “I don't know about you folks but I was raised to respect women and I just don't think this little girl would lie.” The other was an 18 year old girl who told us “I don't know, I just think he did it.” I kept quiet while the rest of the ladies of the jury berated these two about elements of proof and told the man that he was living in a dream world. After about an hour more discussion, I called for another vote. 12 slips said “not guilty.” We returned to the court where the judge had us read the verdict to a very happy young doctor and a plaintiff who sheepishly looked at her father and shrugged her shoulders as if to say “I told you this is what would happen.” The judge thanked us and we were dismissed to maybe return again someday.

Its been a number of years since I've received a jury notice. I'm beginning to miss it.

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