Lawrence S. Huffman: Road-trip trials turn out poorly for defense

By Lawrence S. Huffman - Contributing Columnist

In a previous posting, I told you that one of the standard defense lawyer tactics, designed to do at least two things, was to file a motion asking the court for a change of venue. The word venue simply means the county in which the trial will take place.

The defendant’s usual argument was that pretrial publicity had tainted the jury pool, and he could not get a fair trial in Allen County because of it. I usually just expressed my objections to it without repeating the same old argument. The judge always promptly denied the request, and we moved on with all proceedings remaining in Allen County.

I was handling an arraignment one day when the defendant, in one of my first serious drug-selling cases, was before the court. The defendant lawyer made the usual routine motion for a change of venue. The court, I’m sure, expected my standard objection. For no particular reason, I responded that I had no objection to a change of venue. The defense lawyer and judge were both startled. After deep breaths and stares all around, the judge said, “All right, motion granted.” The court then arranged to have the case transferred to Washington Court House (Fayette County), a rural, very conservative venue in southern Ohio.

It was a one-judge court presided over by Judge Evelyn Kaufman. This was my first experience with a woman judge. I didn’t quite know what to expect. She turned out to be in the John H. Davison class, which was very strict, no nonsense. Keep in mind that in the late 1960s, possession of cocaine for sale was punishable by 10 to 20 years in the penitentiary. Fayette County was a largely agricultural community and as conservative as the judge.

We went down there and tried the case. The jury wasn’t out long and returned a verdict of guilty on all four counts. The defense lawyer then moved the court to order a pre-sentence report to be considered by the judge in the sentencing phase of the case.

To this, Judge Kaufman replied, “There is no need for a pre-sentence report; I won’t consider probation for anyone on a drug-selling charge.”

With the jury still in the box, she called out in a strident voice, “Defendant will rise for sentencing.” He did, and she promptly sentenced him to four consecutive 10- to 20-year sentences. Word of what a catastrophe a change of venue can be circulated quickly among the local lawyers. They all quietly and quickly removed that ploy from their arsenals of defense tactics.

However, shortly after, we had a case pending in which the defendant, who was from Dayton, brought up his lawyer from Dayton to represent him on similar drug-selling charges. This fellow, who was promptly dubbed “the frog” for his anatomical similarities to that amphibian species, was unaware of the Fayette County catastrophe. At arraignment, he made the standard motion for a change of venue. To his surprise, the change was agreed to by me. The judge granted the motion, and several weeks later, all concerned were notified that the case was transferred to Circleville, located in Pickaway County, about 30 miles south of Columbus.

It was a town remarkably like Washington Court House in size, population, economic activity and political sentiment of the judge and the population. The judge was the Honorable William Amer. He reminded me, in physical appearance, of my old Municipal Court friend, the Honorable Carl M. Blank, being small, about 5-4, but the opposite of Judge Blank in temperament.

He was strict with both sides, knew the law, applied it with gusto and conducted a scrupulously clean trial. He wasn’t the slightest impressed with the frog’s big-city attitude and tactics. The defendant was no help to himself either. He had the “hippy” look of the era, that is, shaggy hair, what little beard he could grow, jeans and a sullen attitude.

The jury looked and acted much like the one we had seen in Washington Court House and returned a guilty verdict on all counts. The judge did schedule the matter for a sentencing hearing, which was set for several weeks later. In addition, he scheduled it for a forfeiture hearing on the defendant’s automobile in which the sale transaction took place.

We returned to Circleville for the sentencing hearing several weeks later and found Judge Amer in fine form. He sentenced the defendant to 10 to 20 years and ordered that his car, a fairly new luxury sport car, be forfeited to the Lima Police Department since it had been used in the commission of the crime, as well as all of the cash he had on him at the time of his arrest. The sheriff trotted him off to jail, and the frog hopped in his car and went back to Dayton. My assistant and I took a satisfying trip back to Lima.

Word got around among the usual suspects of the defense bar, and I never encountered another motion for a change of venue while I was prosecutor and never laid eyes on the frog again.

Moral of the Story: All jurors are suspicious of out-of-town lawyers.

By Lawrence S. Huffman

Contributing Columnist

Lawrence S. Huffman is an attorney in Lima and a guest columnist fin The Lima News.

Lawrence S. Huffman is an attorney in Lima and a guest columnist fin The Lima News.

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