|Scene of a courthouse shooting|
in Van Buren, Arkansas
For the second time in two months, a contentious divorce case appears to have sparked a fatal shooting in the South.
The most recent case came last Tuesday when 48-year-old James Ray Palmer walked into the Crawford County Courthouse in Van Buren, Arkansas, and opened fire. Palmer asked to speak to Circuit Judge Gary Cottrell. When told that Cottrell was not available, Palmer started shooting, striking Cottrell's secretary in the leg. Palmer was fatally shot after engaging law-enforcement officers in a gun battle outside the courthouse. Secretary Vickie Jones is expected to recover from her injuries.
Why did Palmer want to speak to Cottrell? Officials believe it's because Cottrell had presided over Palmer's divorce case, which ran from 1999 to 2004 but continued with occasional visitation issues involving one child.
The Arkansas shooting comes after the death in late July of Alabama attorney Robert Blake Lazenby, who died of multiple gunshot wounds in his Sylacauga home. Talladega County officials have released no information about suspects or motives in the Lazenby case, but we reported that the victim had been involved in his own rancorous divorce case at the time of his death.
Domestic-relations cases have become a regular topic here at Legal Schnauzer, and we have reported on several cases where judges, lawyers, and the "justice establishment" appear to have collaborated on blatant cheat jobs against certain parties. Here are two of many posts we have written about such cases:
Here's How Wealthy Republicans Receive Unlawful Favors in Alabama Courts
Bar Association Punishes Lawyer for Telling the Truth
The recent shootings in Arkansas and Alabama involved radically different circumstances. In Arkansas, gunman James Ray Palmer appears to have become deeply disturbed over a variety of issues, and we see no evidence that his divorce case was handled improperly. Palmer's sister said he probably had been suicidal for quite some time before Tuesday's shooting. From the Fort Smith Times Record:
Dianna Lynn Dockery of Sulphur Springs, Texas, said Thursday that her brother recently visited his other two sisters in Oklahoma—where they went on a float trip—and he provided no clue that he reached a point where he believed he had no options.
But Dockery said she thinks he was likely suicidal for quite some time before Tuesday.
Dockery said Palmer recently lost his job at the Bekaert Corporation in Van Buren and his ex-wife hadn't allowed him to see his son in a couple of years.
Palmer reportedly had acted in an abusive and threatening fashion to his ex wife and others:
Steffeny Palmer initially filed for divorce May 26, 1999, a day after she said her husband "flipped out and told me it was time he bought a couple of assault weapons" before he attacked her in front of their child and then set the couch on fire, according to a petition for a protection order Steffeny Palmer sought in November 1999.
In the same petition, she claimed James Palmer went to her parents' home on Nov. 9, 1999, and told her father he had four or five high-powered rifles with him and he wasn't hunting deer, he was hunting "two legged."
Steffeny Palmer also claimed James Palmer had been "drinking and on drugs" and previously spent time in a mental institution.
Dockery said her brother was briefly hospitalized following a suicide attempt - while he was dating Steffeny Palmer - in 1994. The Palmers married in May 1995.
James Palmer filed for bankruptcy in 2005, and his sister said he remained upset over an inability to regularly see his son:
Although Steffeny and James Palmer never returned to court after 2004, Dockery said issues regarding her brother's visitation with his son continued.
Dockery said Steffeny Palmer would periodically refuse to allow James Palmer to see their son, which would leave him upset and depressed, although he would normally "just hold it in," not allowing people to see how much it really affected him.
But the facade apparently started to crack the day before James Palmer walked into the courthouse heavily armed.
Much remains unknown about the Blake Lazenby shooting in Alabama. But we have reported on apparent irregularities in the handling of the case. From our post dated August 17:
Perhaps the most contentious and personal matter on Lazenby's plate, however, was a divorce case filed by his wife, Geanne Elder Lazenby. The complaint is dated October 24, 2008, and public records indicate the case had become rancorous in recent months.
At least four judges had been involved in the matter, and Geanne Lazenby had gone through a "Who's Who" of divorce lawyers from the Birmingham area. Plaintiffs' lawyers at various times included Mavanee Bear, Charles Gorham, Bruce Gordon, Gregory Yaghmi, and Kristel N. Reed. Documents indicate that several of Geanne Lazenby's lawyers quit or were fired. I've had experience with that kind of thing, and while it can be a sign of a difficult client, it also can mean the client is tough and smart enough to know she is being screwed--and the lawyers are unable, or unwilling, to fight the legal cartel.
Blake Lazenby, the defendant, also was pulling out the heavy artillery, including his law partner William W. Lawrence and A. Joe Peddy, of the Birmingham firm Smith Spires and Peddy. The Smith firm's Web site indicates it does not practice family law, and Peddy's individual page does not list divorce cases among his areas of interest. Why, then, was Peddy involved in the Lazenby case?
Based on our research, it is standard practice for a judge to recuse himself from a divorce case involving a lawyer who regularly appears before the court. It's clear that Blake Lazenby regularly appeared before the Talladega County Court, and his firm practices family law, presumably before Talladega judges. That means lawyers from Lazenby's firms routinely were before local judges on divorce matters. One can see why Geanne Elder Lazenby was concerned about receiving fair treatment in court.
The Arkansas shooting appears to be the case of a man who snapped in the face of mental illness and a mounting set of problems, some of which were related to a divorce case. The Alabama shooting, for the moment, appears to be connected to official misconduct involving a divorce case. Here is the question we asked earlier:
Did our state's corrupt legal cartel finally push the wrong person too far, leading to the violent death of a party in a lawsuit? We would not be surprised if the answer is yes.
We will have more posts coming soon on the Blake Lazenby case.