Obiter Dicta

Deal Me In

Con Man Cuts Cards in Vegas While Judge Calls His Bluff in N.J.

Posted Jul 13, 2004 4:54 PM CDT
By Brian Sullivan

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A man convicted of masterminding a scheme that bilked investors out of $1.8 million would have a lot on his mind come sentencing day—such as, say, that possible 20-year stretch he’d be looking at.

But Brian Strahl appeared to be more concerned with pulling an inside straight than with facing the music in court.

Strahl, 29, of Staten Island, N.Y., faxed a letter in May to Judge James N. Citta of New Jersey Super­ior Court, saying he would not be able to make it to his sentencing because he was in Las Vegas playing in the World Series of Poker.

Lest his missive be misconstrued as pure chutzpah, Strahl assured the judge he was only trying to win mon­ey to pay back his victims. As if to prove his point, he claimed to be up $5,000 at the time the fax was sent.

Judge Citta remained un­­­convinced of Strahl’s avowed philanthropic intent and issued a bench warrant for the arrest of the “degenerate gambler.” Michael Chazen, Strahl’s lawyer, explained that Strahl had tried to return the evening before the senten­cing, but lacked proper identification and was not allowed to board his flight. That’s when he decided to sit in at the poker table.

And that’s when Judge Citta decided to up the ante on Strahl by switching his bail to $100,000 full cash.

Chazen says Strahl will remain incarcerated until his rescheduled July 16 sentencing unless he can make bail. He adds that Strahl should “receive due consideration for his efforts at making restitution.”

ACCOUNT PAYABLE?

Briber Busted by Bogus Bagman, Expects Money-Back Guarantee

Sometimes it seems like you can’t trust anyone.

Heck, you can’t even count on finding a crooked prosecutor. It’s enough to make you want to take your bribe money and go home.

But it just doesn’t work that way. A Connecticut woman, though, thinks it should.

Rebecca Messier got pinched in 1998 when she attempted to bribe a prosecutor—for $8,500—to argue for the early release from prison of her husband, Joseph. Her bagman turned out to be an undercover investigator with the state’s attorney’s office.

Messier was charged with bribery but was granted a form of probation that allows the charge to be expunged from her record, while her husband received an additional four-year sentence, served concurrently with his original sentence.

Now, with all that unpleasantness behind them, Messier would like her money back, thank you very much. Her lawyer, James Armentano, filed a motion for its return.

A quizzical Judge Elliot N. Solomon replied, “You want the money back?”

Armentano’s claim that Messier renounced her crime before it occurred was met with skepticism by Solomon.

“I wouldn’t bring a bankbook with you,” he reportedly said to Messier and Armentano. “I don’t think you’re going to be bringing [the money] back.”

HALLMARK MOMENT

Generous Juror Raises Ruckus by ‘Carding’ Drug Defendant

Yes, the uplifting words handwritten on the card were obviously sincere, but come on, what was she thinking?

While serving as a juror in a New Jersey Superior Court drug trial, Rose Cha­varria—aka Juror No. 3—approached the defendant af­ter a lunch break and handed him a card that con­tained $10.

Inside the card was written, “You are a very intelligent young man. I think you are not guilty. You are a victim of the circumstances. If you have children, please think about their future. Get an honest job. ... Be strong.”

Anton Pettway, on trial for selling cocaine in a school zone, gave the card to his girlfriend, who held onto it during deliberations.

Later that day, after the jury delivered a unanimous guilty verdict, defense attorney Nathan Kittner requested a mistrial.

“What the juror did was implicitly incorrect,” he says. “She violated the instructions she was given.”

Superior Court Judge John Conte, after interviewing Chavarria in his quarters, decided that the card was not enough to keep Pettway out of the pen. “The verdict will stand and there will be no mistrial,” he said.

Kittner says the judge’s decision will likely be appealed, and that Pettway will be represented by a public defender.

Brian Lynch, assistant Bergen County prosecutor, has a problem with the fact that Pettway received the card before deliberations but didn’t mention it.

“You can’t keep the card as a hedge. That is the unfair circumstance,” he says. “The remedy would have been to put in an alternate juror.”

The verdict was properly upheld, Lynch says. “We were very happy with the way the court handled the unusual circumstance.”

Stories by Asbury Park Press, Journal Inquirer (Conn.), Online Edition, The (N.J.) Record; Research by Wendell LaGrand.

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