Thursday, November 15, 2007

Wild West Divorce With Stabbing, Shooting And Judicial Politics


The Cool Justice Report
Nov. 15, 2007

EDITOR'S NOTE: This column is available for reprint courtesy of The Cool Justice Report,

Reno, Nevada was once a wide-open cowboy town. As it matured, Reno became the mecca of quicky divorces, gambling and easy access to legal brothels.

Darren Mack was a pawnbroker who had amassed a fortune -- once estimated at ten million dollars -- in a town where many people hock everything they own to feed a variety of obsessions. Mack and his wife Charla enjoyed a lavish and often perverse lifestyle as they were acknowledged swingers. As the marriage began to unravel there were also allegations of domestic violence.

All that ended with Charla Mack seeking a divorce. It became acrimonius. Darren Mack attempted to insulate his assets to avoid alimony and sought custody of their only child. Judge Chuck Weller presided over the divorce and hammered Mack in his award to Charla, ordering him to pay her a lump sum of nearly one half million dollars.

Mack did not react well to Judge Weller's decision and became an advocate for the judge's removal from the bench. Under Nevada's system, Weller had been elected to his position in a general election, a system different from ours in Connecticut. In our state judges are appointed for an 8-year term by the governor with the advice and consent of the legislature.

In a rambling and disjointed Internet interview, Mack claimed that the judge was reputed for favoring lawyers who contributed to his campaign. He claimed that Charla's attorney was a Judge Weller contributor and his was not.

In June 2006 Mack's ex-wife came to his house and confronted him in the garage. Behind a closed door Charla Mack was stabbed seven times, her bloody body dragged across the floor. She was found dead by police. They were alerted to the dispute by a friend of Mack's who overheard the commotion. Mack claimed that she came at him with a gun and that he stabbed her in self-defense.

He fled the house and sought out Judge Weller -- with a rifle. Perched on a building neighboring the courthouse, Mack fired through the window of the judge's chambers. Shrapnel struck the judge and an assistant. Weller survived. Just as in a Wild West movie, Mack fled to Mexico. An International manhunt ensued. Mack was finally found and returned to Reno for trial.

Pre-trial publicity was so intense that a rare change of venue was granted, moving the case to Las Vegas. Mack's defense team, an accomplished pair of noted criminal lawyers, had him evaluated by a forensic psychiatrist and intended on proceeding with an insanity defense. The defense attempted to sever the count of murder from the count for the assault of the judge. That motion was denied and both cases were consolidated for trial.

Immediately prior to trial, defense lawyers informed the trial judge that Mack had elected to pursue the insanity defense in the shooting of Judge Weller but to claim, instead, self-defense in the stabbing of Charla. The bizarre election by their client was against the advice of the defense team. Acting in an ethically appropriate manner they informed the judge of their client's insistence on the dual defenses. The trial judge canvassed Mack on this election and allowed him to pursue the dual defenses.

The decision by Mack demonstrated the clash that can occur when a client makes tactical demands on his trial counsel. Ultimately the client has control over how a trial should proceed. Only fools overrule their lawyers and act against the attorney's advice. The Sixth Amendment provides the right to effective assistance of counsel but caselaw permits clients to make choices, even if they are mistakes.

In Mack's case his lawyers were presented with defenses that are mutually exclusive. Both defenses focus on the state of mind of the defendant. The law permits a person to use deadly force in defense of self or others if the defendant reasonably believed that the other is about to use deadly force on him. Calm, careful reflection is not needed, but the belief that deadly force is about to be used must be a reasonable.

The great legal scholar, Oliver Wendell Holmes once opined that, "The law does not require detached reflection in the face of an uplifted knife."

Faced with a clear, imminent threat one can react without waiting for the first blow to be struck. The key inquiry for a jury is whether the defendant's perception of imminent harm is a reasonable one.

By contrast the insanity defense, in most jurisdictions, requires proof that the defendant was suffering from a mental disease or defect, and as a consequence, either could not conform his conduct to the requirements of law or could not distinguish right from wrong. By definition this defense focuses on the absence of reason.

The dilemma faced by Mack's defense was trying to persuade the jury that his actions in the death of the wife were reasonable to protect himself, but within moments he lost reason and struck out at the judge. Although they attempted to argue that the provocation by his wife caused Mack to snap like a rubber band, the odds were clearly stacked against him. Late last week, Darren Mack finally found reason and reconciled the dilemma by accepting a plea bargain. He pled guilty to murder in the death of Charla and attempted murder in the shooting of the Judge Weller. He faces a sentence now of 20 years to life.

Bridgeport attorney Richard Meehan Jr. was the lead defense counsel for former Bridgeport Mayor Joseph Ganim's corruption trial. Meehan is certified as a criminal trial specialist by the National Board of Trial Advocacy since 1994 and serves on the organizations Board of Examiners. He is a Charter Fellow, Litigation Counsel of America -- Trial Lawyer Honorary Society. Meehan has also obtained multi-million dollar verdicts and settlements in complex medical and dental malpractice and personal injury litigation. He is a past president of the Greater Bridgeport Bar Association and appears regularly on Court TV. Website,

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