A Bizarre Courtroom Experience 

The wildest courtroom experience I ever had took place in Bedford, Kentucky, a small town twelve miles south of Madison, Indiana, on the bluegrass side of the Ohio River. On the front door of the courthouse was a sign which read: “Closed Wendays.” The floor of the courtroom was bare concrete, and the chairs were folding metal ones. Large empty cans were scattered about on the floor to be used as spittoons. In short, the whole scene was almost unreal for me from the first time I entered my appearance for J.W. Gann and his brother Larry — two of a clan of eight brothers. I am sure that it is fair to say that J.W. and Larry were among the tops of their profession as remarkably talented burglars. And they approached their business dealings in a carefully calculated manner, regularly setting aside a portion of their profits for such routine expenses as bail and attorneys' fees. 

J.W. Gann was the CEO of this lucrative enterprise and once proposed an interesting deal to me: He said that, in the previous year, he had paid out a little over $80,000 to lawyers in Indiana and two neighboring states to represent him and a few of his buddies and wanted to know if I would agree to represent them during the coming year for $50,000 (the equivalent of over over $200,000 today) if he paid me in advance, whereupon he put $50,000 in cash in front of me. While I was certainly tempted to take it and agree, I explained that it was unethical for a lawyer to accept fees in advance for crimes to be committed in the future and declined. So, the Ganns retained me on a case-by-case basis when charges were brought, with J.W. consistently naming and paying a suggested fee higher than I would have asked for, but which I would always accept and vigorously work to prove my worth for. For the beyond “Twilight Zone” Kentucky trial alone, I was paid $14,000 (the equivalent of about $58,000 today), plus expenses.

What J.W. and Larry Gann stood accused of was burglarizing a local pharmacy and taking absolutely everything from it: all the drugs, diapers, shampoo, paper-clips, pens, etc. – the entire works. And, they were also accused of taking the small town's ambulance cum hearse, into which they had purportedly loaded and left town with most of the contents of the pharmacy. The people in Bedford did not seem too happy about all this, especially Judge Williamson and the prosecutor.

The trial began on a Monday before judge George F. Williamson and a jury of local Bedford, Kentucky, citizens. Commonwealth prosecutor Hamilton and judge Williamson were like a tag team in a wrestling match, or at least it certainly felt like it to me: when one would stop pounding me, the other would start in; and sometimes they did it together. Several times each day, the judge made highly inflammatory remarks in the presence of the jury. As any good defense lawyer should do, each time I objected and made a motion for a mistrial and requested a change of judge.

Shortly after five o’clock on Friday evening the prosecution was winding up with its last witness when yet again the judge did something which prompted me to move for a mistrial and change of judge for the umpteenth time, causing the judge to completely blow up. Right in front of the jury, judge Williamson glared at me, threw his hands up in the air, and bellowed loudly, "I suppose if I died right here on the bench, then you might get your mistrial!" Whereupon, the judge had a heart attack right on the bench.

Initially, no one realized that was what had happened. The judge simply leaned over; clenching his fists, then got up and walked into his chambers without saying anything. My clients and I assumed that he was merely extremely angry. A minute or so later, I went into the judge’s office and learned that he was in a very serious condition and that an ambulance had been called to take him to the hospital. Even after he was taken away, the bizarre situation continued since no one knew what to do about the jury, which remained seated in the jury box: Only a trial judge has the authority to discharge a jury, and this one was on his way to a Louisville hospital 42 miles away.

There sat the jurors, with no trial going on for over three hours. When I went into the courtroom one time during that period, a juror in a fairly bitter mood screamed at me in his southern drawl “Whadda we gone hafta do, wait here all nat?!” Since lawyers are not permitted to talk to jurors directly except sometimes during the jury selection process, I could say nothing to him at all and went back into the hallway to chat with my clients and paralegal assistant. A while later I went into the court again and was stunned to see prosecutor Hamilton standing by talking to them. I asked him what he was doing. "I'm telling them about the judge," he replied. "Why don't we tell the jurors to just go on home and to come back when the sheriff calls them?" he suggested. When I told him that we did not have the authority to do that, he shouted, "For God's sake, Nile, the judge is dying and you're still going to object?!" The situation felt bizarre.

Finally, someone managed to contact a member of the Kentucky Supreme Court who telephonically appointed a local lawyer as a special judge for the sole purpose of discharging the jury. That night, my clients and I didn’t exactly celebrate, but we definitely got inebriated. My paralegal aid on the case, Martin Wayne Bradberry, danced around singing, "Naa, na, na, naaa, naaa . . . Nile killed the judge, Nile killed the judge. Naa, na, na, naaa, naaa . . ."

I told the Gann brothers that I would have to charge them a special premium for divine intervention. Seriously, of course, I hoped that the judge did not die. For one thing, I thought that prosecutor Hamilton might charge me with manslaughter. And, thankfully, judge Williamson did not die. A few months later, the aborted trial took place under a different judge who was one of the finest and fairest judges before whom I ever had the pleasure of practicing law. At the end of that trial, J.W. and Larry Gann were convicted as charged.

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