Howes & Howes, Attorneys at Law

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Reflections on 25 Years in the Law (Part Three)

My first job after law school was in the Union County Prosecutor’s Office in Elizabeth NJ.  It was a great job.  I was on my feet in court before the end of my first week on the job.  I started prosecuting juvenile crimes in the juvenile section after six months.  Not long after that I was handling jury trials on the adult trial team.  I gained a lot of trial experience as well as experience working with the local media.  One of the cases that I remember as a little different was a robbery of a suburban grocery store by an ex-convict.  He insisted that he was shoplifting, but we proved that he was committing a robbery. (Union County Courthouse pictured below.)

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The W.M. case hit my desk in a pretty routine distribution of the files on the suburban trial team.  The only thing that caught my attention was that it was a second degree robbery.  Most cases that hit my desk were third- and fourth-degree cases, so a second- or a first-degree crime usually stood out.  As my trial team investigator and I did a little more investigation, we found out that this was not the average robbery.

W.M. had served hard prison time for a prior robbery conviction.  While in custody, he decided that when he was free, he wouldn’t risk the rather substantial penalties for second-degree robbery (5 to 10 years) or first degree robbery (10 to 20 years).  Therefore, he decided on a shoplifting scheme.  If he were caught and convicted of a shoplifting, he would be exposed to a maximum of six months in jail, but most likely would pay only a fine.

One fine day, W.M. traveled to a grocery store in suburban Union County.  While his accomplice waited outside, W.M. went into the store, emptied the contents of a thirty pound bag of dog food, and filled the bag with 22 cartons of cigarettes.  When he went to the front end, he intended to pay for the dog food, which cost a fraction of what the cigarettes cost.  The young cahsier who rang up the “dogfood” order, noticed that something was suspicious, and confronted W.M, who fled to the parking lot.  When the cashier caught up with W. M. in the parking lot, W.M. punched the young man in the face.  (He was not injured).  Police later apprehended W.M..

The State’s case went in smoothly, thanks to excellent witness preparation by my investigator.  W.M. took the stand in his own defense.  He explained to the jury that yes, he committed a shoplifting offense and a simple assault, offenses for which he was prepared to be punished.  He insisted that he did not commit a robbery.  The jury thought otherwise.  The jury accepted the State’s explanation that by committing an assault before he reached a point of safety, that W.M. had transformed the shoplifting into a robbery.

The court sentenced W.M. to the maximum time in prison:  10 years in New Jersey State Prison, the first 5 years without the possibility of parole.

Robbery must have been W.M.’s destiny.  It was the outcome that he carefully planned to avoid, but in the end, it was the one that he could not avoid.

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