An Alabama grandmother was convicted last week of conspiracy to murder her ex son-in-law over a child-custody case.
Prosecutors alleged that Barbara Patterson, 64, hired a hit man to help turn her former son-in-law into "fish bait." The hit man turned out to be an undercover agent for the Alabama Bureau of Investigation. A federal jury took less than an hour to find Patterson guilty, and that makes it sound like an open-and-shut case.
But certain aspects of the story cause us alarm. For one, it grew out of a divorce/custody case involving Patterson's daughter, Kimberly Dawn McGuffie. We have reported extensively on corruption in Alabama's domestic-relations courts, so Patterson might have had legitimate reasons for feeling that justice was not being served in her daughter's divorce case. That's not to suggest that hiring a hit man is the right way to address such a problem. But I understand the sentiment, and the public should not be surprised when some people turn to desperate measures when faced with deep-seated courtroom corruption.
After all, the McGuffie divorce/custody case was heard in Shelby County Circuit Court, the same venue where the Rollins v. Rollins divorce fiasco took place--and where Mrs. Schnauzer and I were cheated repeatedly in a property-related case involving a criminally inclined neighbor named Mike McGarity.
I know how Shelby County courts really operate, and I know the enormous rage and frustration that comes from being on the wrong side of a court battle that is fixed.
Here is another oddity about the grandmother/hit man story, and it gives me considerable pause: Kent Faulk, a reporter for The Birmingham News, resorted to some peculiar journalism in his article about Barbara Patterson's conviction. The part of his story in question is not available in the online version at al.com, to which we link in the first paragraph above. But it was in the printed version, and here are how the last two paragraphs of the story read. It refers to a witness called by defense attorney Mari Morrison:
A lawyer, called to the witness stand by Morrison, also testified Wednesday that Patterson had come to his office with her daughter in July 2009 and hired him to try and win custody of the two children. He said he was paid $4,500 over a two-month period. A court hearing had been set in that case before Patterson and McGuffie were charged.
Morrison had argued that her client was trying to get custody of the children the legal way.
Notice something missing in those two paragraphs? Kent Faulk does not identify the lawyer in question; the man testified in open court, but we are not told his name. Why on earth is that? A reporter for a junior-high newspaper would know to include the lawyer's name, but a veteran reporter for The Birmingham News can't figure it out? If Faulk somehow slipped up, no one on the newspaper's copy desk could catch it and make sure the name was added? Is everyone at The Birmingham News on an industrial-strength dosage of Ambien.
I sent Faulk an e-mail on Thursday, asking why the name was omitted. If it was an honest mistake, I asked, will the newspaper publish a correction or clarification?
You probably will not be surprised to learn that Kent Faulk did not respond to my e-mail, and the paper did not publish a correction.
That tells me the omission was intentional, which means our local conservative news rag is trying to protect somebody, for some reason. Why might that be? Here are a few possibilities:
A. The lawyer was embarrassed that he charged $4,500 for two months of work, which probably amounted to attending one hearing, and had enough clout to keep his name out of the newspaper;
B. The lawyer is a member of the "hunting club" that allegedly conspires with local judges to fix divorce cases. We've written about multiple federal lawsuits that have been filed over the hunting-club issue, and we will be writing much more. But I can reveal this much now about my research: The pro-business, pro-Bob Riley law firm of Bradley Arant was heavily involved in defending hunting-club lawyers and judges. And we know that The Birmingham News shares the strong pro-business, pro-Riley stance of the Bradley Arant firm. Did someone with an interest in protecting the hunting-club gravy train persuade the newspaper to help shield a certain attorney?
C. All of the above.
Here is a final area of concern about the Barbara Patterson case: The case was handled by U.S. District Judge Abdul Kallon, and we have first-hand evidence that Kallon is flagrantly corrupt or incompetent (or both). Kallon practiced at Bradley Arant before being named to the federal bench. (Kallon, by the way, is an Obama appointee; that is just one more reason to be disgusted with the president's many failures on justice issues.)
The jury that convicted Barbara Patterson apparently had little doubt about her guilt. But I see a lot of reasons to doubt whether justice was served.