Wise judge teaches life lesson

Sunday, February 18, 2018

I well remember the first case I tried as a prosecutor. I won the case, but I was very disappointed in the result. By the end of the trial, I wanted to lose.

In my third year of law school at the University of Missouri at Columbia, I was assigned to work as an intern in the Boone County Prosecuting Attorney's office for a semester. The prosecutor at that time was Milt Harper (later a circuit judge). I was assigned to work under his assistant prosecutor, Stan Clay.

It was 1978. Columbia was a growing municipality--and still is--and the prosecutor's office was very busy. The plan was, I was to follow Clay around for several weeks before I began appearing in court alone. But, as I said, this was a busy office, and after a few days, I found myself appearing alone to represent the state in arraignments and bond hearings.

I usually appeared before Magistrate Judge Temple H. Morgett. He had been around for many years and had a very good reputation among the members of the Boone County bar. I was a bit nervous with these earlier than planned appearances; he must have noticed my timidity. Anyway, he thought I needed a bench trial to get steady on my feet and he and Stan Clay arranged one for me.

I was given plenty of notice and time to prepare, watched several trials, and listened closely to Clay's instructions.

Before the trial, I had continued to appear in front of Judge Morgett, who after each appearance would usually pull me aside and tell me what I was doing right and was doing wrong. He was a bit gruff when on the bench, but he was much friendlier during these conferences; he boosted my confidence and these tutorials helped me distinguish between his courtroom demeanor and genuine interest in those learning to practice law. I could understand his popularity.

Finally, the day of my trial came.

The defendant was charged with speeding. Fortunately, he appeared without an attorney. His wife accompanied him. She was pregnant and sat directly behind him.

As required of the prosecutor, I made a brief opening statement that contained the anticipated evidence of each element of the crime and then called my only witness, the Missouri State Trooper who had stopped and ticketed the defendant on Highway 63 in Boone County.

The trooper testified he clocked a pickup truck driving south on radar exceeding the posted speed limit by about 8 miles an hour. He stopped the truck, the defendant was behind the wheel, and he issued him a citation. I ended my questioning and, to my surprise, the defendant told the court he had some questions of the trooper.

The trooper confirmed that the defendant told him that he had just purchased the truck and that the speedometer was not working. There were temporary tags on the truck. When the trooper was excused as a witness by the court, I rested my case.

The defendant then called his pregnant wife to the stand. She confirmed that the two had just purchased the truck in Moberly, north of Columbia, and were returning to their home in Jefferson City, thus traveling through Boone Country on Highway 63 when they were stopped. Indeed the speedometer was broken and her husband, driving the truck, was attempting to estimate his speed when he was stopped by the trooper. She then produced a receipt showing repair of the speedometer shortly after the date of the ticket.

Needless to say, the couple had earned my sympathy with this version of events. Their infraction of speeding seemed to be no fault of their own.

At the close of the case I made a closing statement again giving the elements of the crime and the evidence produced to prove each element. My statement was not given forcefully, and, I secretly hoped the court would find him not guilty.

The judge pronounced that the defendant was guilty and fined him $25.

After the court adjourned, I expressed my disappointment with the verdict of guilty to the judge.

"Don't worry about it," is the only thing Judge Morgett said.

Overall, I made a poor showing in my first prosecution.

What I came to realize afterward was that the judge had applied the law to the facts of the case. As a prosecutor, my sympathy had no place in a court of law. The judge had, by imposing a small fine, recognized the circumstances, but the defendant was still guilty of speeding.

I learned a lot during my semester in the Boone County prosecutor's office.

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