The forest for the trees

By By Suzanne Monk / managing editor
June 13, 2004
Earlier this week, Robert Pollard was convicted of timber theft, technically "larceny of timber," in Lauderdale County Circuit Court. He cut trees on Melwyn Shirley's property, or his crew did, on Jan. 8, 2003.
Pollard's defense attorneys argued that it was an honest mistake, one he tried to rectify by paying Shirley for the trees. During the trial, the defense said he offered her $600. Shirley turned him down. The district attorney's office said the trees were worth $1,226.
Whichever figure is correct, Pollard never paid Shirley, although he did sell the trees. At the 11th hour, right before the trial, he tried to pay Shirley again if she would drop the charges.
The jury didn't think it was a misunderstanding and convicted Pollard in two hours, 30 minutes.
Unsuccessful
strategy
Just before closing arguments, the defense tried to make a case for a
secondary line of defense. It came in
an unusual request regarding jury instructions.
Attorney Chris Falgout asked Circuit Judge Robert Bailey to instruct the jury on the difference between criminal liability and civil liability. Why? Because he didn't think his client should ever have been indicted for a felony crime. To Falgout, it seemed like the matter should have been addressed in a civil lawsuit.
The argument was fourth cousin, twice removed and no blood relation, to the idea of instructing jurors that they can consider a "lesser included charge."
This is not uncommon in criminal trials. For example, jurors deliberating in a murder trial may be allowed to consider the lesser included charge of manslaughter if they can't agree.
Assistant District Attorney Dan Angero objected, making the common sense observation that the court was conducting a criminal trial not a civil one and that allowing the jury to consider a civil judgment would be inappropriate.
One is not a less serious version of the other. One implies criminal intent, the other doesn't.
Apples and oranges.
Three strikes
You take your chances when you demand a trial by jury because anything can happen. Angero says he offered Pollard a plea bargain, although he declined to discuss the specifics.
Pollard may be wishing he had taken the deal because he's a habitual offender. Pollard was convicted of embezzlement in Lauderdale County in 1989; he received a three-year sentence. In 1999, he was convicted of aggravated assault and got another three years.
The sentence for timber theft ranges from one year to five years but, because one of Pollard's convictions is for a violent crime, he is likely to receive the maximum under the less severe of Mississippi's "three strikes" laws.
Pollard has apparently avoided being subject to the more severe "three strikes" law because the district attorney's office can't prove one of its necessary elements that he actually served at least one year for each of his prior convictions.
In this situation, Pollard would have received a mandatory life sentence.
That may seem harsh in light of the relatively small amount of money involved and the fact that there are a half-dozen timber-cutting lawsuits filed at the Lauderdale County Courthouse demanding tens of thousands of dollars in damages. The difference is they don't allege that a crime occurred.
Pollard's sentencing hearing is set for July 30.
Suzanne Monk is managing editor of The Meridian Star. Call her at 693-1551, ext. 3229, or e-mail smonk@
themeridianstar.com.

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