Posts Tagged ‘robbery’

Criminal Defense Lawyer Continues to Speak Out on Questionable Robbery Conviction in Spokane

I have never met the guy, but you have to hand it to defense attorney David Partovi for the tenacious defense of his client Tyler Gassman.  Partovi went down swinging in Gassman’s defense last year on a questionable robbery conviction, and is continuing the fight.  Partovi has lodged a bar complaint against the Spokane prosecutor, agreed to interviews with the press, filed appeals, and has even taken the unusual step of commenting on the newspaper articles in the online comment section.  He even got the Spokane prosecutor personally fined for $8,000.  (Ouch!  Giuliano Mignini anyone?)  According to news reports, Partovi even wept at sentencing for Gassman.  As a result, the amount of people taking notice of this case is beginning to grow.  The most recent person to take notice is Jacob H. Fries, the managing editor of The Inlander.  Fries is no stranger to writing crime stories, having covered such matters for the New York Times and The Boston Globe.  Now the Spokane native is covering injustices in Spokane.  See his recent piece on Gassman’s case hereThe Inlander apparently is doing a series on unjust convictions in Eastern Washington, and lists a contact number on their site for people to submit ideas.

Here is what all the fuss is about.  The Spokane prosecutors had a rock solid case against a robbery suspect, and let him go with a slap on the wrist in exchange for pointing fingers at seemingly anyone he chose, including Tyler Gassman. You really have to wonder about this business of “buying” the testimony of criminals with promises of leniency.  If it is a crime to bribe a witness with cash in exchange for his testimony, how is it any better when a prosecutor “bribes” the witness by offering him or her freedom?  In 2002 the Tenth Circuit Court of Appeals ruled: ”If justice is perverted when a criminal defendant seeks to buy testimony from a witness, it is no less perverted when the government does so.”  Such squeal deals seemed like they would be prohibited.  However, the court overturned itself 9 days later, and prosecuting attorneys continue to troll the local jails looking to make bargains for testimony with inmates desperate for their freedom.  And that is essentially what David Partovi faced when Matt Dunham agreed to point his finger at Tyler Gassman and other Spokane locals.  Serving as Tyler Gassman’s criminal defense lawyer, Partovi sought to impeach the credibility of Dunham at trial.  Dunham’s cellmate told the defense lawyer that Dunham was making it all up to save himself, but the cellmate refused to testify.  (A criminal defense lawyer, unlike a prosecutor, can’t agree to give witnesses immunity).   After Tyler Gassman was convicted and sentenced to 25 years in prison for allegedly robbing drug dealers, the cellmate (Anthony Kongchunji) finally agreed to come forward.  Sounds like good grounds for a new trial right?  Spokane Superior Court Judge Michael Price didn’t think so.  He ruled that the defense lawyer erred by not hauling Kongchunji up to be made to forcibly testify.  Huh?  Doesn’t someone pretty much always have the right to take the fifth if they think they are going to incriminate themselves?   Apparently a police detective subtly (or not so subtly) implied that the cellmate could be facing perjury charges if he testified for the defense.  That could give any witness cold feet.

Right now, the case is on appeal.  We will wait and see.   Let’s ask Spokane prosecutor candidates what they think about this case?  Attorney David Stevens has announced his candidacy, as well as attorney Frank Malone.  Someone please ambush them at candidate’s night and let us know what they say.  Somehow, I have a feeling David Partovi will be in the front row with his hand up.

Shouldn’t prosecutor’s offices have some sort of written policy on offering leniency in plea negotiations in exchange for testimony?  What do you think?

(Photo does not depict any actual participants in this case.)

Police Arrest Brian Hickson for Alleged Robbery of Bank in Coulee Dam

Today in The Star Newspaper, there was an interesting story about a man arrested for an alleged robbery of a bank in Okanogan County.  The man, Brian Hickson, allegedly walked into a Coulee Dam bank and handed the teller a note that read “Give me your money.”  The teller refused saying “I can’t do that,” and Brian Hickson left.  The police stated that Hickson later told them it was a “prank”.

So does that constitute an attempted robbery?  Under Washington law, a person commits robbery when he “takes personal property from the person of another or in his presence against his will by the use or threatened use of immediate force, violence, or fear of injury….”  Was the alleged statement made by Brian Hickson a threat?

This case kind of reminds me about a case that went to the Supreme Court a few years ago called State v. Collinsworth.    In that case the defendant entered Washington Mutual Bank and approached the teller and demanded money.  He appeared to be “very nervous” and “fidgety,” told the teller in a “serious” tone of voice, “I need your hundreds, fifties and twenties.”   When the teller paused, unsure of what to do, Collinsworth said, “I’m serious.” As the teller started retrieving currency, Collinsworth said, “No bait, no dye.”  The Supreme Court explained that even though he made no overt threatening gestures and did not display a weapon, Collinsworth’s unequivocal demands for immediate surrender of the bank’s money, under the circumstances of the case , were sufficient to support a robbery conviction.

However, those circumstances appear to be different than the incident Brian Hickson was charged with.  When Collinsworth was charged, he was a bit more forceful with his point, and made explicit references to the dye that is used to deter crimes such as robberies.  It will be interesting to see what comes of this case.   I don’t think a jury will expect a teller to have a sense of humor about Mr. Hickson’s “prank”,  but on the other hand there doesn’t seem to be an clear legal precedent to support a robbery charge under Washington law.  It may be that the jurors will be given the option of considering a lesser charge.

By Steve Graham.

Robberies of Pharmacies — Is the State Legislature Considering the Issue?

How much worse is the problem of Oxycontin and pharmacy robberies going to get?  There was an opinion piece in the Seattle Times earlier this month by Elizabeth M. Economou on the subject of pharmacy robberies.   The opinion piece was personal in that Elizabeth Economou’s husband is a pharmacist and was the victim of a robbery.   But she also called on the state legislature to increase the penalties for such pharmacy robberies.   The position is different from the arguments that I have made (here and here) insofar as I believe that the robberies are the result of the inherent addictive properties of Oxycontin, and that more needs to be done in regulating the manufacturing and marketing of such drugs.   But while I have seen the ravishes of addiction daily in my practice as a criminal defense attorney, pharmacists such as Economou’s husband see it from a different perspective, i.e. looking down the barrel of a gun.

A Seattle writer complains about the robbery of her pharmacist husband.

A Seattle writer complains about the robbery of her pharmacist husband.

Elizabeth Economou explains:  “instead of combat boots and olive-hued fatigues, my husband sports a crisp white lab coat while valiantly assuming his place on the front lines of the insidious war for prescription drugs.”   She writes that he returned from work early and her husband explained “I got held up — he wanted Oxycontin.”

It may seem like Ms. Economou is being melodramatic with her war analogy, but she is not.   Such stories are in the newspaper everyday.  The situation has gotten near the boiling point, and I am worried that any day gunfire will erupt in one of these incidents.  On November 19th, the Spokesman-Review reported in a story that a pharmacy employee tackled a man with a gun who tried to rob the store of its Oxycontin.  The employee was still trying to wrestle the gun away from the suspect when the police arrived.  The story did not make the front page of the Spokesman because such stories are growing commonplace.

After I read Elizabeth Economou’s suggestion that the legislature should increase the penalties for such robberies, I emailed an attorney I knew who works with the state legislature.   No such penalty increases were being considered.   There was no room in the budget.  And it is not because Economou’s was the only one to suggest the idea.  The elected prosecuting attorney for King County, Dan Satterberg made the same request.   The state is simply broke and can’t afford the cost of the increase prison sentences.

While it is debatable whether increased prison sentences would deter desperate addicts, one thing is sure.  The debate in the legislature would have provided an excellent opportunity to force our leaders to consider the growing problem.  Too many of our leaders are ignoring the issue of Oxycontin and pharmacy robberies.

String of Oxycontin Robberies Continue in Washington State: But How Did We Get Here?

I read in last Sunday’s Spokesman-Review of the steps many pharmacies were taking to stop oxycontin robberies.  Then three days later, I read about another Spokane oxycontin robbery.  For those of you haven’t followed the news, the precise problem is addicts going into  pharmacies with a weapon demanding oxycontin pills.  Sometimes, a robber merely pretends to have a weapon or simply writes a threatening note.  According to news reports, Washington State leads the nation in oxycontin robberies. A typical oxycontin robbery job goes something as described in this police wanted photograph.  wanted_flyer_-_456

I am sure this is not fun for the store employees.  Prior to oxycontin coming on the market, I don’t really remember ever hearing too often about pharmacy robberies.  There just is something about oxycontin pills that drives the addicts crazy in a way that morphine or percocet does not do.  The Walgreens in Spokane made national news last week when they announced the problem of oxycontin robberies was so bad in Washington that they were placing special time-delay safes in all stores.  The safes take several minutes to open – the idea being that a robber is not going to stick around for ten minutes or so.  I wonder about this idea.  What pharmacy clerk really wants to break the news to a drug-crazed armed robber that they have to wait ten minutes?  If I were a clerk I would rather just have a bottle handy  right there by the counter I could toss in a hurry.   Drug-crazed robbers are dangerous, and Seattle robbery Detective Mike Magan explained: “I’ve always said the person who commits pharmacy robberies for oxycontin is the most dangerous person you’ll come up against…”. To combat oxycontin robberies, the Seattle police department provided a tracking device to a pharmacy to put in with the oxycontin  should a robbery occur.   (See story.)  The man they caught was suspected of committing 16 pharmacy robberies.

In response to such robberies, the elected prosecutor from King County, Dan Satterberg, is pushing the state legislature to increase the penalties for these oxycontin robberies.   The Washington Retailers Association is also supporting this.  I won’t argue against such ideas, but I would encourage our legislatures to remember how we got into this mess in the first place.

How about the pharmaceutical company Purdue-Pharma that invented and mass-marketed oxycontin?  The company agreed that it committed a felony when it marketed oxycontin and hid how unsafe it was.  The company faced 600 million in fines after it plead guilty, but how come the executives never went to jail?  (See news reports).  According to a story in the New York Times, “…Purdue Pharma contended that OxyContin, because of its time-release formulation, posed a lower threat of abuse and addiction to patients than do traditional, shorter-acting painkillers like Percocet or Vicodin.”   Lower threat then Vicodin?  This false claim by Purdue Pharma was the center of their aggressive marketing campaign.  Just a few years after the drug’s introduction in 1996, annual sales reached $1 billion.  According to the above mentioned article, “Purdue Pharma heavily promoted OxyContin to doctors like general practitioners, who had often had little training in the treatment of serious pain or in recognizing signs of drug abuse in patients.”  The story continues: “…both experienced drug abusers and novices, including teenagers, soon discovered that chewing an OxyContin tablet or crushing one and then snorting the powder or injecting it with a needle produced a high as powerful as heroin. By 2000, parts of the United States, particularly rural areas, began to see skyrocketing rates of addiction and crime related to use of the drug.”  Although drug companies often can’t predict the consequences of their products, Purdue Pharma had to admit that they deliberately concealed the harmful effects of its drug.

Although the company had to pay $600 million in fines, the profits from the sale of oxycontin were about four times that much.   Purdue Pharma had a lot of money to hire lawyers, and when they were being investigated they hired Rudy Guilliani to try to use his influence to get the DEA to back off.  Guilliani accepted several million dollars for this service.  See story.  Guilliani went to see the local Virginia prosecutor that was going after Purdue Pharma, and the local prosecutor ultimately agreed that the three executives would not have to do jail time.  See story.  So while I am not really happy that drug addled nitwits are robbing our state’s pharmacies, I am troubled by the unfairness of a system that allowed the executives who created this mess to get off without any jail time.  The judge who handled the sentencing of the executives felt the same way.  He explained that the the lack of jail time for the executives was the “most difficult” part of accepting the plea deal.  Protesters outside the court house were angry that the executives were getting off so lightly.  Many protesters had lost loved ones to accidental overdoses of the drug.

This poster was held by a woman protesting the light sentences for the executives.  Her 17-year-old daughter died of an overdose of just one pill of this supposedly "safer" pill.

This poster was held by a woman protesting the light sentences for the executives. Her 17-year-old daughter died of an overdose of just one pill of this supposedly "safer" pill.

You can see why the family members of people hurt by oxycontin would be upset by the court system.

What responsibility does Purdue Pharma have as to all the oxycontin pharmacy robberies in this State?  Not much apparently.  According to the Spokesman-Review last week, the company that has made 2.8 billion on this drug was offering just a measly $1,000 reward for the latest robbery.

You really have to wonder about the way drug companies market these prescriptions.   The latest problem is the practice of drug companies writing articles about how great their latest drugs are and then finding a doctor to submit the article to a publication.  The article then makes no mention of the fact that the article was not really written by the particular physician.  With oxycontin, Purdue Pharma would market oxycontin by getting in good with doctors with free trips.  Purdue Pharma would pay for the transportation and hotel costs for hundreds of doctors to attend weekend seminars in spots like Florida to discuss pain management.  Doctors were then recruited and paid to speak to other doctors at some of the 7,000 ”pain management” seminars that Purdue sponsored around the country.  The seminars  taught the importance of aggressively treating pain with the powerful drugs made by Purdue Pharma.

I find it highly annoying that all the discussion of these oxycontin robberies ignores how we got into this oxycontin disaster to begin with.  As seen in the wanted poster above, going after a drug addict in a hat and hooded sweatshirt is pretty easy.  They look guilty, and you can score political points by being “tough on crime”.    All of the police detectives, prosecutors, politicians, defense lawyers, legislators, probation officers and judges of Washington State coping with this problem are really just janitors cleaning up a mess left by powerful forces of money and power and influence back East.

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Photo of Steve Graham Steve Graham is a criminal defense lawyer who works in eastern Washington, including Spokane, Grant, Ferry, Stevens, Lincoln, and Okanogan, and Whitman counties. Visit his website by clicking: www.grahamdefense.com
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