A twist in the case of Barry Beach

Helena_capitolI’ve written before about the case of Barry Beach, convicted in Montana for the 1979 murder of a teenage girl in a small northeastern Montana town. Beach, then a teenager himself, argued that his conviction was based on a false, coerced confession, and after serving 30 years, sought a new trial. The trial judge agreed and he was freed for 18 months—renting an apartment, holding a job, and finding support in a new community. The Montana Supreme Court then reversed that decision, denying Beach a new trial and sending him back to prison.

Changing tack, Beach and his legal team are now seeking to have his sentence of 100 years without the possibility of parole commuted — that is, converted to life with the possibility of parole — so that he can seek parole. The case will be heard by a panel of the state Board of Pardons and Parole next week, which can deny the request or make a recommendation to Governor Steve Bullock to commute. The twist? The Missoulian reports that Governor Steve Bullock has now written the Board, urging it to recommend clemency. The article fails to note — because here in Montana, we all know — that Governor Bullock was the state Attorney General who opposed Beach’s request for a new trial and successfully argued for reversal on appeal. He writes that the Board should focus not on guilt or innocence, but on whether Beach is a good candidate for parole, saying “The reasons for maintaining Mr. Beach’s 100-years-without-parole sentence at taxpayer expense diminish with each passing year.”

I know the Governor and admire him. He was wrong as AG, but he’s right now. Beach’s sentence should be commuted so he can be considered for parole, and he should be paroled. There is evidence pointing to other killers; unfortunately, it will probably never be tested in court, meaning justice may be incomplete. But even incomplete justice does not justify injustice.

(Photo: Montana State Capitol)


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New Jobs for young and old lawyers

IMGP2172Because I’ve been practicing law for thirty years — gad — people often assume I write legal mysteries or thrillers. Or that my protagonists are former lawyers. Lawyers — retired or working — make great characters, but I’m enjoying exploring other career paths in my fiction, primarily those focused on food!

But I can’t stray too far from the field I know so well. In Death al Dente, first in my Food Lovers’ Village Mysteries, set in Jewel Bay, Montana, protagonist Erin Murphy is surprised to discover that Bill Schmidt, the local herbalist and her widowed mother Fresca’s new beau, is an ex-lawyer. When Erin needs legal advice, she pops around the corner into Bill’s magical, mysterious shop. And in my Seattle Spice Shop Mysteries, debuting in March 2015, Spice Shop owner Pepper Reece worked in HR for a large Seattle law firm before it imploded in a rash of scandal. That gives her access to law firm librarians, paralegals, criminal lawyers, defense lawyers, and other experts she met in her former career.

What other careers do lawyers tackle? Just about anything you can imagine. This Washington State Bar journal article  profiles Tim Blue, a practicing lawyer and winery owner. Another lawyer I knew left the bar behind to, well, open a bar. One runs a campground. Greg Bartholomew, whom I worked with in Seattle, is a successful choral composer. Former lawyers run all manner of businesses — one of my law school classmates is president of Bank of America, and another runs his family’s construction business. Some work in insurance. More than a few have left the law for the ministry. A very successful local trial attorney now spends much of the year in Italy, painting. One of my writer pals spent years as a criminal defense lawyer before returning to her early love of books and becoming a junior high English teacher, in small prairie towns and on Indian reservations.

Many former lawyers work in government, at all levels, in all departments — not necessarily as lawyers. Some run charitable organizations. Others teach in law or business schools; several of my classmates at Notre Dame Law School are deans or hold other positions in university administration, and a woman who graduated a few years behind me became a woman’s basketball coach. My former dean, long widowed, is now a Catholic priest.

And of course, quite a few write mysteries. What career can you give an ex-lawyer character, to add a legal perspective to your story — and give your sleuth a resource to consult?

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The Saturday Writing Quote: fueling the fire

“But here’s a radical thought. What if all the mess – the children, spouses, emotional demands, the dogs, the volunteer work, school visits, journalism, book reviews, the things we do to make money and to keep life ticking over for other people – what if they’re the fuel that runs the fire? What if the distractions and chaos of every day life are what give our books a heart and a pulse and an understanding that life is conflicting and complex and frustrating and full of unexpected pleasures?”
– Meg Rosoff, on Writer Unboxed, 3/19/14

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The Saturday Writing Quote: Going Home Again

“Going back is a creative process. The events of childhood are like the Hebrew alphabet; the vowels are missing, and the older self has to make sense of them. Robert Frost’s famous poem about the two paths diverging in the woods isn’t only about the two paths. It also describes how older people go back in memory and impose narrative order on choices that didn’t seem so clear at the time.”
— David Brooks, in the New York Times, 3/20/14, in an essay called “Going Home Again,” inspired by a TED talk by Sting, describing how going back to his childhood helped him return to songwriting

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Subscribing to Garner’s Usage blog

GarnerI’ve quoted from Bryan Garner’s blog, Garner’s Usage Tip of the Day, based on his Garner’s Modern American Usage, and readers have told me the entries are useful but they can’t find a way to subscribe. One way is through the publisher’s website. The email subscription option is midway down the page.

Try another route through this page on Garner’s website. The email subscription option is below Garner’s signature in the right-hand column.

And feel smarter already.

References for Writers

The Saturday Writing Quote: “Creative Solitude”

IMGP2181 “An artist must have downtime, time to do nothing. Defending our right to such time takes courage, conviction, and resiliency. Such time, space, and quiet will strike our family as a withdrawal from them. It is. An artist requires the upkeep of creative solitude. An artist requires the time of healing alone. Without this period of recharging, our artist becomes depleted…. We strive to be good, to be nice, to be helpful, to be unselfish. We want to be generous, of service, of the world. But what we really want is to be left alone. . . .”

– Julia Cameron, from The Artist’s Way (1992)

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Back to School for Lawyers

IMGP2172Lawyers are required to take continuing legal education courses, typically 15 credits a year. Some states mandate ethics courses as well. Here’s a sampling of the topics from a recent stack of brochures that crossed my desk — they’ll give you an idea of the wide range of practice areas your fictional lawyers may be involved in, and maybe spark an idea or two:

Auto Injury Litigation – Start to Finish

Payroll Law Bootcamp

Medical Malpractice — Expert Witness Strategies

Hydraulic Fracturing Land Lease Negotiations

Medicare Requirements in Injury Settlements

Quiet Title Actions (just tell it to sit down and shut up, or you’ll send it to bed without any dinner!)

Prior Appropriation Water Rights (as Snoopy says, I don’t even understand the lunch menu)

Collection Law from Start to Finish

Estate Administration Procedures: Why Each Step is Important (lots of story fodder here)

Drafting School Handbooks and Policies

LLC or Inc.? Entity Selection for a Small to Medium Sized Business (Anybody else think of The Exorcist when you hear the word “entity”?)

Human Resource Law

The Art of Settlement

HIPPA Compliance for Lawyers: The New Requirements

Social Security Disability: Advanced Issues & Solutions

Farm Injury Litigation: A Plaintiff’s Guide — includes determining liability, finding insurance coverage, maximizing recovery from multiple wrongdoers, workers’ comp, and other sources, OSHA regs, defective machinery design, and proving damages

Several courses on land use issues, understanding surveys, title insurance, and boundary disputes

Litigating School Bullying & Cyberbullying Lawsuits

Law Practice Management

Construction Defects

Marijuana in the Workplace

Authenticating Social Media and Email Evidence

And a postcard for the annual On-Campus Interview Weekend at the Law School, for firms looking to hire. 


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The Saturday Writing Quote – Cynthia Ozick

“We write to taste life twice, in the moment, and in retrospection. We write, like Proust, to render all of it eternal, and to persuade ourselves that it is eternal. We write to be able to transcend our life, to reach beyond it. We write to teach ourselves to speak with others, to record the journey into the labyrinth. We write to expand our world when we feel strangled, or constricted, or lonely. We write as the birds sing, as the primitives dance their rituals. If you do not breathe through writing, if you do not cry out in writing, or sing in writing, then don’t write, because our culture has no use for it. When I don’t write, I feel my world shrinking. I feel I am in a prison. I feel I lose my fire and my color. It should be a necessity, as the sea needs to heave, and I call it breathing.”

– Cynthia Ozick, American novelist and short story writer (b. 1928)

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The Saturday Writing Quote — Tim O’Brien

“For me, a good story embraces both the ordinary and the extraordinary. I’m not interested in simply holding up a mirror to the world. I’m not interested in reporting on actualities and calling the result fiction. To my taste, a good story is a mix of the so-called real world and a much more mysterious and elusive interior world we all live in.”
– Tim O’Brien, American novelist, b. 1946 (“The Things They Carried; Going After Cacciatto“)

[What I tell beginning writers] “Be stubborn. Be tenacious. Commit yourself to the inevitability of failure. Sentences are going to fail, chapters … whole books … [P]ay close attention to [your] own life. Don’t avoid your own passions and fears. There’s a tendency, I think, to sublimate it all, or to become so oblique as to avoid entirely that which has hurt you or that which has jerked you awake at night. I know of no rule that commands a writer to be subtle at all costs. At times, I believe, it doesn’t hurt to be blunt.”
– Tim O’Brien

Both quotes excerpted from a July 2010 interview in The Writer 

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Stupid Criminal Tricks: the fake deputy

th_badgeAccording to the Seattle Times, a man posing as a King County sheriff’s deputy, wearing a T-shirt reading “Sheriff,” a holstered revolver, and a radio of some sort, knocked on doors in an apartment complex, telling residents he was looking for the suspect in an auto theft. Several residents got suspicious and called 911 — they thought he “lacked a police presence” and said when asked for I.D., he ignored them and kept talking.

When a real deputy spotted him, the imposter took off, eluding both a tracking dog and a helicopter search. According to the Times, “Investigators believe the man probably got into a nearby car and split. The sheriff’s office doesn’t know what the imposter was up to. One possibility is that he was looking for the supposed car thief and figured this was one way to find him. Or maybe “he was looking to get his kicks.””

And yes, impersonating a law enforcement officer is a crime.

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