Video Shows Apparently Drunken Lawyer in Court

It’s like watching an insect slowly sizzling under a magnifying glass — except that the bug not only volunteered to be there, but won’t stop moving right into the center of the sunbeam. Oh, and it keeps telling one hilariously flimsy lie after another, with all the apparent sense of shame of Paris Hilton on Red Bull and Vicodin.

(For the record, Legal Pad has no way of ascertaining that the lawyer’s wildly adjustable story consisted of jaw-dropping misrepresentations of fact. We just believe the judge.)

( Oh, and we’re not technically qualified to testify as to the sense of shame of the hotel heiress, on or off prescription medication, which we have no knowledge of her ever taking. We’re just sayin’ …)

A defense lawyer in a Las Vegas rape trial — in which his client faces life in prison — showed up hours late, smelling of booze, stumbling over his words (and furniture), and changing details of his story every six seconds under the questioning of District Judge Michelle Leavitt. Court TV has a story and, compellingly, about an hour of courtroom video of attorney Joe Caramagno’s comical misadventure.

Caramagno explains that he was delayed by a car accident, victim of a rear-end hit and run. He later adds that this impact thrust him forward into another car. Both other cars fled the scene. Except later he says one of the cars did stop, but declined to contact police or exchange information. And Caramagno has a philosophical objection to ever calling 911 himself.

He also, it turns out, has a blood alcohol level of .075 (for comparison, California’s legal limit for driving is .08, and Mel Gibson’s was tested at .12 after his infamous anti-Semitic tirade. Caramagno claims he had not been drinking that day, but had had three shots of tequila the night before. Leavitt asks what he considers “last night.” “Three a.m., your honor.” (Even that comes into dispute — might it have been 5 a.m.?)

Leavitt finds Caramagno to be making “misrepresentation after misrepresentation” on subjects from who the girl in court with him is — she starts out as his ex-girlfriend Christine, and reveals herself to be Josephine, whom Caramagno met 20 minutes before coming into court — to how much sleep he had. And by the time the prosecutor sends a cop out to find Caramagno’s rear-ended car (with front-end damage only), a viewer has to grudgingly admire the defense counsel’s bravado.

The big details are terrific, and so are the small strategy bits, such as the prosecutors craving a mistrial, to prevent an ineffectiveness appeal, but first asserting the judge needs to find cause sua spante, then figuring out that, no, she doesn’t. The real magic, though, is in Caramagno’s blithely disingenuous performance, and his refusal to take Leavitt’s repeated suggestions that he’d be better off talking a lot less. Consider what happened when she comments that the apparently drunken lawyer had seemed competent in the previous day’s appearance.

“… I didn’t see any indicia of any problems yesterday,” the judge says.

Caramagno reaches out and, while pouring himself a glass of water, offers this, as though beating her at her own game: “Well, your honor, I can represent to the court that I had a Heineken at lunch yesterday.”

There is a long, stunned silence from Leavitt as we hear (and see) Caramagno continue pouring the water. When she speaks, incredulous, her voice at first is a breathless whisper.

“Did you drink a beer at lunch yesterday?”

“I did, your honor,” he says cheerfully.

“Before we picked a jury?”

“Yes, yes ma’am.”

Minutes later, she finds “manifest necessity” to call a mistrial, lest Caramagno’s client — who mouths off to the judge but doesn’t seem inclined to fire his lawyer — suffer “extreme injustice.”

To say nothing of the inevitable appeal of any conviction. “I’m confident,” she concludes, “the case would come back if I proceeded.”

Brian McDonough

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