Students witness Appellate Court in session
September 18, 2007
National Constitution Day this year was celebrated on Monday, Sept. 17. In 2001 Lynne Cheney, the wife of Vice President Dick Cheney, thought it was a great idea to annually celebrate the importance of learning about America's founders and the documents they created. At the inaugural celebration she especially was interested in the strong beliefs of George Mason, the founding father who would not sign the U.S. Constitution believing it needed a Bill of Rights to protect the individual.

In Joplin members of the criminal justice department of Missouri Southern State University decided to celebrate Constitution Day 2007 by showing area high schoolers how the Missouri Appellate Court system works to protect these individual rights.

Jeffrey Bates, John Parrish and Daniel Scott, three of the seven judges from the Southern Appellate District of the Missouri Court of Appeals agreed to hold two court sessions at the Mills Anderson Criminal Justice Center instead of their usual venue, a small office chamber in the Hammons Building in Springfield. Their case load covers appeals to Circuit Court decisions made in 44 counties in one of three districts in the state.

"All rise," said the marshal who sat with the court clerk, announcing the entrance of the judges. And an incredible silence fell over an audience that normally breathes with noise.

The afternoon case involved the appeal of Austin G. Lawrence, 28, of West Deer Meadow La., Joplin. The defendant after pleading guilty to a Count II charge of unlawful use of a weapon, was found guilty to a Count I charge of assault in the first degree by Circuit Court Judge Jon McDermott. Through a plea bargain agreement Lawrence was sentenced to a term of five years and 15 years respectively, but following the completion of five years for Count I was to be placed on probation under the 15 year sentence imposed in Count II. That may sound complicated enough, but the matter was even more convoluted, as a search of Missouri Casenet reveals. It seems that the defendant couldn't decide if he were guilty or not guilty and each flip flop caused the date for a jury trial to be extended and other procedures of a highly irregular nature.

In reference to the jury trial Judge Scott questioned the legality of a bench trial without the waiver of a jury trial. It seems that the appeals court can bring up a matter in violation of a "core Constitutional right" without the matter addressed by the defense attorney. If it's a plain error in a rule of the Circuit Court, an extreme miscarriage of justice, then the Appellate Court is compelled to right that wrong, Scott explained, although he admitted it was a rare occasion.

On January 30, 2005 Lawrence admittedly drove to the home of Eric Wesley Colbert, Park Ave. in Joplin and from his vehicle fired several bullets into the house. One was alleged to have landed six feet from a child.

It's not clear how easily the students in the audience followed the appeal presented by the defendant's attorney, Ty Stephen Gaither of Joplin and the counter appeal by Shaun Mackelprang, an assistant district attorney representing the state. The gist of the appeal seemed to be over McDermott's finding of guilty to Count I and whether exhibits entered by the defense were to be construed as facts or not in helping him make his ruling.

Gaither made repeated reference to the "Whalen case" and the determination of probable cause--in Lawrence's case whether his lack of absolute knowledge of whether Colbert was home--even though Colbert's car was in the driveway and it was 9 p.m.--constituted reason to throw out the first degree assault charge. Gaither claimed that his client's intent was not to shoot anyone. Apparently, Gaither wanted the judges to believe that Lawrence was just venting his anger over an employment matter. Gaither revealed that Lawrence was a postal worker...nuff said.

The Appellate Court held two sessions, one at 11 a.m. and the other at 1 p.m. The earlier session dealt with an appeal over child support in a divorce settlement. While we weren't there to cover the details, we assume that the absence of the parties glaring at each other in the audience made the session rather uneventful.

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Joplin appeallate Sessionsmbvp132702007-10-03 17:02:56