May 19, 2012

Analysis of the Pring-Wilson Trial and Insurance Decision

Filed under: law & crime by Victoria Liberty @ 11:57 pm

Guest post by John Victor

The following was written by John, a visitor to this blog who reached out to share his views about the Pring-Wilson case. All opinions belong to him and are not necessarily my own. Thank you again John for providing your opinions and analysis!

The Pring-Wilson/Michael Colono murder trial involved a Harvard graduate student who was attacked by two Puerto Ricans in Cambridge, Massachusetts. This should have been an open and shut case of justifiable homicide. All Alex Pring-Wilson’s lawyer had to do was to reenact the case for the jury and demonstrate physically what actually happened during the attack. He did neither. Instead reports lead me to believe that he attempted to create “reasonable doubt” by attacking the hostile witnesses that were associates of the victim. This bit of legal “bullying” itself fell right into the trap set by the prosecutor, who portrayed Pring-Wilson as a “rich kid bully” that beat up and killed a poor innocent street kid. The result was a conviction of manslaughter in the first trial, and a hung jury (with 10 of the 12 jurors voting to convict). Pring-Wilson then pleaded guilty and took a plea bargain after family finances became an issue.

I’m a 5th degree black belt who does analyses of physical attacks as part of my teaching. The following is my analysis of what actually happened in this street fight. I’ll be willing to put on a demonstration of events for anyone who challenges my conclusions. As it turned out, I’m the only one that has actually tried to reenact this fight.

Continue reading…

April 28, 2012

News in brief: legal happenings around the world

Filed under: law & crime,world news by Victoria Liberty @ 7:53 am

This has been a busy week in various cases and trials that The Freedom Bulletin is following. I did not have time to post about all of them during the week, so here is a recap of some of the more newsworthy (in my opinion) goings-on that you may have missed:

The trial of confessed mass-killer Anders Behring Breivik continues in Norway. Last week, he described the massacre that he carried out in chilling detail, said that he would rather be executed than face the “pathetic” maximum sentence of 21 years in prison, and proclaimed that he has no regrets and “would do it again.” This week, testimony turned to a psychiatric report that called him legally insane, which Breivik strongly criticized, saying, “To a political activist, the worst thing that can happen is to end up in a mental hospital. That would delegitimise everything you stand for.” Survivors of Breivik’s bombing of a government building took the stand yesterday, and survivors of his shooting rampage will likely testify next week. Time has an interesting comparison of the Norwegian and American justice systems as shown by this trial.

Pvt. Bradley Manning had three days of court hearings this week, which unfortunately did not go very well for him. Col. Denise Lind, the military judge in his case, denied a motion to dismiss the charge of “aiding the enemy,” rejecting the argument that the multitude of classified files he shared with WikiLeaks did not harm national security. She also denied a motion to dismiss four other charges for being redundant. However, Manning’s lawyer, David Coombs, did win the opportunity to access government reports about the dangerousness of the leaked documents. Manning’s court martial is scheduled for September.

An anonymous commenter tells me that Alexander Pring-Wilson‘s civil case settled on Tuesday. This case involved whether a homeowner’s insurance policy on his home should be held responsible for the damages that were awarded to the estate of Michael Colono, whom Pring-Wilson killed in a fight back in 2003 (he’s always maintained it was self-defense). This week, the insurance company agreed to pay Colono’s estate, represented by executrix Cindy Guzman. This is a case that I’ve been following for a long time, and I am glad that both Colono’s relatives and Pring-Wilson can finally put this mess behind them and move on with their lives.

Sgt. Gary Stein was officially given an “other than honorable” discharge from the armed forces for creating the Facebook group, “Armed Forces Tea Party,” and posting criticism of President Obama. He vows to appeal, and he is also launching his own radio show. After the decision, Sgt. Stein posted on Facebook, “Even though I will be discharged no one can take the title of Marine away from me… Today is just the start of the rest of my life. Semper Fi.”

Dominique Strauss-Kahn recently did an interview with Edward J. Epstein, who wrote an article in the NY Review of Books last year suggesting that the infamous attempted rape case may have been a set-up. DSK agreed with this sentiment in the interview and shared a few new thoughts and observations, which are interesting to read since he has rarely spoken publicly about the case. The interview is part of Epstein’s new book, entitled “Three Days in May.”

Lawyers for George Zimmerman disclosed that their client raised over $200,000 to help with legal bills via his (now defunct) website. Unfortunately for Zimmerman, this triggered a new dispute over bail, with prosecutors asking that his bond be increased, and a lawyer for Trayvon Martin’s family accusing him of deceiving the court by failing to disclose the sum earlier.

June 28, 2011

Alexander Pring-Wilson: the last trial?

Filed under: law & crime by Victoria Liberty @ 7:32 am

The legal trials and tribulations of Alexander Pring-Wilson may finally be nearing an end. A one-day bench trial took place yesterday in Boston’s federal courthouse to determine whether Pring-Wilson will have to pay $260,000 in damages to the estate of Michael Colono. In 2003, Pring-Wilson, then a Harvard graduate student, fatally stabbed Colono, a Cambridge resident with a criminal record, during a fight. He has always maintained he acted in self-defense. After two trials, Pring-Wilson pleaded guilty to involuntary manslaughter in January 2008 and spent just under a year in jail. Colono’s estate won a $260,000 judgment against him in a civil trial in a Massachusetts court. Farmers Insurance Exchange, with whom Pring-Wilson’s mother had a home insurance policy, initially agreed to pay the settlement because the death was considered an accident, but they then changed their minds and decided that the death falls under one of the exclusions to the policy, so Pring-Wilson should have to pay. In yesterday’s trial, the insurance company is the plaintiff and both Pring-Wilson and Colono’s estate are the defendants.

Although the trial was originally scheduled to last a week, the unavailability of some witnesses – including Colono’s cousin and his girlfriend, who witnessed (or participated in) the fight – meant that it ended up lasting less than a day. Pring-Wilson and his mother, Cynthia Pring, were the only witnesses. Judge Patti B. Saris called court into session in Courtroom 19 at 9:30.

The first issue to be decided was Pring-Wilson’s residency, as the insurance policy only covers him if he is a Colorado resident. Pring-Wilson (who is representing himself) took the stand, sporting a gray suit, blue shirt, and dark tie, as well as a beard, which made him look quite different than I remember him from his criminal trials. He currently lives in a house in Colorado Springs, CO, with his wife, Janice Olmstead, whom he married in October of 2009 and who was his girlfriend since 2001, standing by him throughout all of his legal problems. His parents, Cindy Pring and Ross Wilson, got divorced in 1985, he said during direct examination by Elizabeth Mulvey, who represents Colono’s estate, and he and his younger twin sisters, Maggie and Jessica, lived with their mother. He gave this Colorado Springs address as his permanent address throughout his school years and his legal battles. While attending Colorado College, he lived in a dorm for his freshman year, spent some time studying abroad in Russia, and later lived in the college’s “Russian House,” with other students in Russian studies, and then in an apartment with friends. In 2001 he was accepted to a graduate program at Harvard, focusing on Russia and former Soviet socialist republics. His first day of class was September 11 of that year. He lived with a friend and her boyfriend in an apartment in Somerville and brought clothes, his computer, and “basically what I could fit in the back of a pickup truck” to Massachusetts. He left the rest of him belongings in the Colorado home, “depending on who you ask, either scattered all over the house or tidily packed in my room.” He returned there for Thanksgiving, winter break, spring break, and his birthday in February.

At the time of the fatal fight, Pring-Wilson had been accepted to a JD program at the University of Colorado and was planning to return to his home state. His mother’s Colorado home was listed as his residence on his school records, driver’s license, tax returns, voter registration, car registration, and passport. His only bank account was with Wells Fargo in Colorado.

While awaiting trial, he initially lived in the Somerville apartment with his two friends, but before his second trial began he moved to Marlboro with Olmstead, who had moved to Massachusetts. His bail conditions required him to live in Middlesex County, MA, but because his girlfriend got a teaching job in Worcester, he wanted to live as far west as possible. When released from prison on either New Year’s Eve 2008 or New Year’s Day 2009, he returned to the Colorado house. He and Olmstead currently have their own house, also  in Colorado Springs.

Next Pring-Wilson’s mother, Cindy Pring, took the stand and was questioned by Michael Harris, another lawyer for Colono’s estate (which is actually on the same side as Pring-Wilson in this trial). Alexander was 3 years, 3 months, and 3 days older than his twin sisters, she said. When Harris tried to ask what Alex was like growing up, Judge Saris said, “no.” She often interjected to ask questions and cut off lines of discussion during today’s proceedings. Mrs. Pring said that Alex “has always been working” but that unlike his sisters, who moved out to start their own households, he kept his possessions at the house and considered it his permanent residence. Pring-Wilson got to ask his mother a question – where did Ms. Olmstead live at the time? She lived with her grandparents in Colorad, Mrs. Pring answered, until she moved to Massachusetts to be with her boyfriend in 2005.

In a victory for Pring-Wilson, Judge Saris ruled, “I find he’s a resident. It’s an overwhelming case that he’s a resident.”

During the next portion of the trial, Farmers Insurance Exchange and Fire Insurance Exchange had to prove that Pring-Wilson’s conduct at the time of Colono’s death fell within an exception to the home insurance policy, namely that Pring-Wilson intended to hurt Colono. Pring-Wilson took the stand again, and under direct examination by one of the insurance company’s lawyers (whose name I forget), he described the events of April 12, 2003. On Friday night (April 11) he went out with two friends, Jennifer Hanson and Mary Kate McCartney. He drank a total of 7 to 10 drinks at various places, including the Rosebud diner, the Burren, and the Western Front, but felt “pretty normal” and was able to think straight, talk, and walk normally. After the girls left in a cab, he walked home. At about 2 a.m., while trying to call his girlfriend on his cell phone, he heard someone yell to him from a parked car. Not hearing what was said, he replied, “Excuse me, were you talking to me?” They replied “very rudely” and he also responded rudely, he said. Then, he said, “the person knocks me back into the alley, driveway area, and at some point I get my bell rung.” When he regained consciousness, he was on his knees with one person kicking him from the front (Colono) and another punching the back of his head (Samuel Rodriguez, Colono’s cousin). “I feel like they’re not going to stop,” he testified. “I took the knife from my back pocket, I used it to clear some space in front of me. I have this distinct impression of space in front of me.” He called 911 on his cell phone and the two men left.

When Judge Saris questioned him about why he carried the knife, he replied, “I carry the knife all the time. It wouldn’t have occurred to me not to carry it.” Later he explained, “Generally I find having a pocket knife extremely useful…I’ve always carried a pocket knife. My sisters carry pocket knives. We all have them.” He has used his knife to sharpen pencils, open beers, and on the day of the fight, to help install shelves. He chose the particular model, made by Spyderco, because of its size, its flat and cerrated edges, and because it was manufactured in Colorado. He had never been in any kind of physical fight before or had any criminal record.

He did not run away, he said, because “It’s awfully hard to run away when somebody is punching you in the face.” He didn’t hit back because “it didn’t even occur to me.” He didn’t scream or call for help because there was no time to think: “All of a sudden there was this extremely violent, extremely angry person punching me in the face…I had my hands over my head, just trying to keep the blows from hitting…The person behind me just kept slamming his fist into the back of my head.” He said he was “very much afraid that these people wouldn’t stop until I was dead” and consistently maintained, “I used my knife to clear a path in front of me…It wasn’t so much a matter of striking but just getting them away from me.” He even knelt to the floor in front of the witness stand to demonstrate what he did during the fight, causing Judge Saris to exclaim, “I feel like I’m back in state court; I’m loving it!” She also scolded the insurance company lawyer for his repetitive questions.

When he called 911, Pring-Wilson told law enforcement that he had merely witnessed a fight. “The whole thing was just made up…It was just a really, really bad idea and I made a mistake…I have no better way to explain my mindset,” he said yesterday. The day after the fight, he was brought to the Cambridge police station, informed that Colono had died (which he found “extremely shocking”), and arrested. “I had a very bad headache,” he said. “I felt like I had the worst concussion I’ve ever had in my life.” When asked by Judge Saris, he said that he had had several concussions before, two from accidents and the rest from football and rugby.

The voluntary manslaughter conviction in Pring-Wilson’s first trial was overturned because of a later decision that allowed defendants to introduce evidence of the criminal history of the alleged victim. The second trial ended in a hung jury. Instead of facing a third trial, Pring-Wilson pled guilty to involuntary manslaughter. Although he had to agree to the prosecution’s statement of facts, he explained yesterday that this was not because he felt he was guilty. “I felt that our defense was the best it could get,” he explained. “My wife having basically supported both of us on her teacher’s salary, it became financially difficult for us to stay in Massachusetts.” He preferred to get everything over with and be able to return home after spending a year in prison than to incur the expenses and risk that a third trial would entail.

After the lunch break, the lawyers gave closing arguments, Mulvey arguing that Pring-Wilson had no intent to cause harm to Colono (and therefore the death was accidental) and lawyers for Fire Insurance Exchange arguing that something as slight as intending to swat someone’s arm away counts as an intent to harm, and therefore Pring-Wilson did intend to harm Colono. Pring-Wilson asked Judge Saris to “please consider the issue in light of self-defense…If you’re acting in a reasonable manner to defend yourself against somebody else…the policy applies…there’s no exclusion that applies.”

Judge Saris emphasized, “It’s a tragedy all around that this guy died…It’s a tragedy that this man’s career is derailed…It’s a little hard to blame someone.”

I’ll blog back with Judge Saris’s decision. I’m not sure how long that will take.

October 12, 2010

Alexander Pring-Wilson’s civil trial

Filed under: law & crime by Victoria Liberty @ 11:35 pm

As if going through two criminal trials wasn’t enough, Alexander Pring-Wilson also has been dealing with a civil lawsuit in the aftermath of the 2003 fight in which he killed Michael Colono. Pring-Wilson, a Harvard grad student, ran into Colono and his cousin by chance on a Cambridge street, insults were exchanged, and a fight broke out, during which Pring-Wilson ended up fatally stabbing Colono with a pocket knife. He has maintained that Colono and his cousin attacked him and he acted in self-defense. Pring-Wilson was charged with first-degree murder and convicted of voluntary manslaughter in 2004, but he received a new trial, which ended in a hung jury in 2007. In January 2008, he pled guilty to involuntary manslaughter, went to prison, and got out on December 31, 2008.

Then, Colono’s estate decided to sue Pring-Wilson for wrongful death. From what I’ve managed to piece together, a bench trial took place before Middlesex Superior Court Judge Thomas Billings in February of this year. I believe that Billings found Pring-Wilson liable for Colono’s death and ordered him to pay $520,000 in restitution, which was later reduced to $260,000. Pring-Wilson is appealing this decision.

But things get more complicated: Pring-Wilson’s family in Colorado has a homeowners’ insurance policy which covers accidents. He thinks that the policy should pay the fine for Colono’s death because he killed him by accident. The insurance company, Fire Insurance Exchange, disagrees. Because the insurance claim was incurred in Massachusetts and the policy was issued in Colorado, this case ended up in federal court. And in addition to all of the Chuck Turner craziness yesterday, a hearing also took place in Pring-Wilson’s federal civil suit.

The subject of the hearing was a motion by Fire Insurance Exchange and Farmers’ Insurance Exchange (who are considered the plaintiffs) for summary disposition – to rule in their favor without further debate. It took place before Magistrate Judge Robert Collings. The insurance companies were represented by attorneys Bill Schneider and Steven Couch, Pring-Wilson represented himself, and Elizabeth Mulvey and Michael Harris represented Cindy Guzman, Colono’s girlfriend, who is the executor of his estate and is a co-defendant in the lawsuit along with Pring-Wilson.

Pring-Wilson and Guzman sat at opposite ends of the same table, separated by her two lawyers, which was a pretty interesting dynamic – she is suing him for her boyfriend’s death, but they are technically on the same side in the federal case. Pring-Wilson, who is now 32, looked quite different – he now has facial hair and was wearing cowboy boots with his tan suit and red striped tie. But he is just as adamant that he acted in self-defense, and just as well-spoken, as he was in his previous trials.

Schneider, for the insurance companies, argued that Colono’s death was not an accident and therefore should not be covered. Under Colorado law, he said, an accident is defined as “an unanticipated or unusual result flowing from a commonplace cause.” Pring-Wilson’s insurance policy excludes bodily injury caused intentionally by an insured person, or caused by an insured person when the consequences are foreseeable. According to Billings’s statement of facts, Pring-Wilson stabbed Colono 5 times, one of which struck his heart, which Schneider argued could not have been done accidentally.

Mulvey, however, argued that Colono’s wounds were in a random pattern, all but one were less than 3/4 of an inch deep, and it was simply horrible luck that one wound hit Colono’s heart; an inch or two in either direction and his injuries would be minor. This pattern, she said, was consistent with Pring-Wilson “flailing” around with his knife to try to clear a path for him to escape from his attackers, as opposed to trying to hurt Colono. Pring-Wilson’s upbringing, educational background, job prospects, and lack of prior history with Colono gave him no reason to want to hurt him. She described the altercation as “a fistfight which Mr. Pring-Wilson negligently turned into a knife fight” and which the insurance company should have to cover. To support her claim, she cited several cases that judges had ruled inappropriate for summary disposition, including one in which a robber fired at a store clerk to frighten him, but ended up accidentally shooting him. She said that Pring-Wilson had only pled guilty to involuntary manslaughter because it “seemed to be a reasonable thing to do at the time,” and this shouldn’t be held as evidence of intentionality.

Pring-Wilson, speaking briefly on his own behalf, went even further. “I’m not content with the facts as cited in Judge Billings’s argument,” he declared. He has always claimed that he stabbed Colono only three times, for example. He explained that, although he understands Mulvey’s position that he acted negligently, he maintains that he acted in self-defense and should therefore not be held responsible for Colono’s death at all. He also asked Judge Collings to stay the proceedings in this trial until his appeal in the state civil trial is decided.

Judge Collings took the motion under advisement. We shall see if he grants summary disposition or if the trial moves forward.

October 7, 2010

Colono’s brother suspected in rapes, stabbing

Filed under: law & crime by Victoria Liberty @ 11:13 pm

Remember Alexander Pring-Wilson, the Harvard grad student who killed young Cambridge man Michael Colono in a fight (in my opinion, in self-defense) back in 2003? I followed his legal saga and attended his second trial in 2007.

I am mentioning him now because Marcos Colono, the older brother of Michael Colono, was arraigned today for the stabbing of a Harvard researcher, as well as the stabbing and sexual assault of the researcher’s 11-year-old son, in Cambridge this August. Colono was tied to the crime scene by a fingerprint from a 1998 marijuana arrest. Additionally, Colono will likely be charged with the 2008 rape of two college students in Brighton, since the DNA from the Cambridge crime scene matched that at the Brighton scene.

The District Attorneys of both Suffolk County (where Brighton is) and Middlesex County (where Cambridge is) gave a press conference today, and here is a portion of Suffolk D.A. Dan Conley’s statement:

“Through a DNA database known as the Combined DNA Index System, we were able to match those two profiles and link them to one offender though what’s known as a ‘case to case hit.’

“Further testing at the Cambridge scene led to fingerprints – and those fingerprints led us to a suspect.

“That we’re here today to announce Marcus Colono’s arrest is a testament to the power of forensic databases like CODIS and the Automated Fingerprint Identification System. But those databases would be useless without the professional criminalists who harness their technology and testify to its accuracy in terms juries can understand.”

More coverage from: Boston Globe, Boston Herald, NECN, Fox25, WBZ, WCVB, and Wicked Local Cambridge.

August 6, 2010

Probation for sexual assault?

Filed under: law & crime by Victoria Liberty @ 9:03 pm

On Wednesday, 19-year-old Armin Ruzbie pleaded guilty to assault and battery on a former classmate and was sentenced to four years of probation. Apparently, in 2007, Ruzbie entered the 16-year-old male classmate’s room with three friends, pulled his pants down, and sexually assaulted him while yelling at him and videotaping the assault. If he violates his probation, he will face the more serious charge of indecent assault and battery.

Is it just me, or does that sentence not seem harsh enough?

I mean, Clark Rockefeller was sentenced to 4-5 years in jail for kidnapping his daughter, whom he did not hurt, and causing minor injuries to a social worker. Alexander Pring-Wilson got two years in jail for killing someone in self-defense. People have gone to jail for possessing guns without a license, doing drugs, stealing, and drunk driving. Isn’t sexual assault worse than these things?

Although Ruzbie apologized for the crime and might have become a better person in the years since, what he did was extremely wrong and he deserves to be punished for it. His defense lawyer called the assault a “one minute act of adolescent stupidity.” When I think of stupid things that teenagers sometimes do, I think of silly fashions, cutting class, smoking, driving too fast…but deciding to basically rape a person who is sitting in his room and minding his own business is far beyond stupidity. Anyone who does that deserves a more severe punishment than probation.

January 18, 2010

Coakley putting innocent people in jail

Filed under: law & crime,politics by Victoria Liberty @ 10:48 pm

If you need another reason not to vote for Martha Coakley for U.S. Senate tomorrow, in addition to her political views and the fact that she called Curt Schilling a Yankees fan, she has also put clearly innocent people in jail on at least two occasions.

According to this article by Ann Coulter, in 2001, when Coakley was Middlesex County District Attorney, Gerald Amirault, who had been convicted of child molestation in 1986 despite there being no evidence to support the charges, was granted clemency by the Massachusetts parole board. Governor Jane Swift was going to go along with their recommendation, but Coakley enthusiastically lobbied Swift to keep Amirault in prison, and she agreed. Because of Coakley, Amirault remained in prison for three more years.

Additionally, in 2003, Harvard grad student Alexander Pring-Wilson was walking down the street when he was attacked by two drug dealers, both with criminal records. In the ensuing struggle, Pring-Wilson fatally stabbed one of his attackers with the utility knife that he always carried. Middlesex D.A. Coakley charged Pring-Wilson with first-degree murder for his act of self-defense. He was held without bail and convicted of voluntary manslaughter, but then was awarded a new trial and eventually pleaded guilty to involuntary manslaughter. Even if you think that Pring-Wilson acted wrongly, which I don’t, it is inappropriate to charge someone with first-degree murder for a non-premeditated death that occurred in the middle of a fight.

So, there you have it – two examples of people unjustly put in prison by Coakley. Contrary to the opinion of the Coakley supporter that I encountered at yesterday’s rally, a D.A.’s job is not to put innocent people in jail.

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