Original article available online through The Virginian-Pilot.
A federal judge has ruled that Iran is liable for supporting rebels in Yemen who kidnapped a Chesapeake contractor, held him hostage for weeks and tortured him before he was brutally murdered in 2015, leaving behind a wife and seven children.
John Hamen was one of two American contractors taken by Iranian-backed Houthi rebels at Sanaa International Airport. They were on their way to work at a former Sheraton Hotel the State Department was renovating for its personnel. At the time it was being used by the United Nations after the U.S. abandoned its embassy in the war-torn nation.
Hamen was an Army veteran there to provide security while Mark McAlister was a quality control manager on the construction project. Then men were taken to an unspecified prison and Hamen was strangled to death about 16 days later, while McAlister was released for an undisclosed ransom amount about six months later, court records show.
U.S. District Judge Randoph Moss Washington ruled earlier this month that the Hamen and McAlister families should be paid by Iran more than $252 million in compensatory and punitive damages, although they likely will only receive a fraction of that through a fund set up by Congress for people who were injured as a result of an act of international terrorism by a state sponsor of terrorism.
Through an attorney, the Hamen family declined to comment. But court records detail some of the lasting impact the loss of a devoted family man with four special needs children has had on them over the years.
“I am haunted by memories of identifying John’s body, imagining the violent manner in which he died, and by the gaping hole left in my everyday life by the loss of my best friend, my husband and my (children’s) dad,” Jennifer Hamen wrote.
“My children have often asked me if we are safe and if the terrorists will come to kill us too. Some of my youngest are still afraid to go outside. My twin girls will likely never again have a birthday where they vividly remember what it felt like to learn about John’s murder.”
McAlister also is haunted by his experiences.
In a telephone interview, he said he’s experienced post traumatic stress disorder since he returned and has suffered from anxiety and depression. But the devout Christian also said he’s realized that each day he’s alive is a blessing.
Since his return, McAlister has spoken to multiple churches about his time in captivity, how he resisted efforts to convert him to Islam so he’d be released earlier, and how his faith sustained him through his darkest times.
He’s thought long and hard about what happened and now believes God wants him to use it to spread the Gospel.
“This story is not about Mark McAlister. It’s about Jesus Christ,” he said. “I believe his intention is for me to share it with the world.”
He likes to note that Hamen — who tried to help him escape — was heroic and lovingly talked about his family. McAlister is now writing a book about their experience and said his publisher thinks it may even be turned into a movie one day.
McAlister said he’s felt driven to service since his return and has spoken to a United Nations panel. Soon he will relay his experiences at the FBI Academy in Quantico.
Now, he said, he’s considering using a portion of the judgment award to help fund a run for U.S. Senate, although it’s unclear how much either family will actually receive.
“The only way we would collect the full amount is if we found assets that were known or attributable to the Islamic Republic of Iran in a location that would allow us to collect them,” said Kevin Hoffman, a Virginia Beach attorney representing the families.
“So the far more likely scenario, as far as how these families will be compensated, is something called the United States Victims of State Sponsored Terrorism Fund.”
Money for that fund comes from forfeiture proceeds, penalties and fines related to civil and criminal cases involving prohibited transactions with state sponsors of terrorism.
The fund was established by Congress in 2015 and has paid or allocated more than $2.1 billion to victims from incidents such as the USS Cole bombing and the embassy bombings in Kenya and Tanzania, according to the Department of Justice.
But the fund only addresses compensatory damages, not punitive ones. Of the $252 million the Hamen and McAlister families were awarded, only $84 million is in compensatory damages. And the fund sets a cap on how much a family can be paid at $35 million. The fund is also limited by how much money is in it and the number of unpaid claims.
Hoffman said over the life of the fund, which is set to expire in 2026, families likely won’t receive more than 30 percent of what they’re awarded.
Still, the judgment shows the families there is some accountability for Iran, Hoffman said.
“Obviously, they’re happy to see some compensation for lost wages and loss of a loved one,” he said. “But also, they’re participating in a process here that I think is important as the international community continues to stand up to Iran and say, ‘You can’t do this. You can’t spread violence around the world like this.’ ”
Hoffman noted that the judge’s order can also increase political pressure. In the wake of the ruling, U.S. Senators Tom Cotton of Arkansas and James Inhofe of Oklahoma issued a statement saying that it showed Iran bears responsibility for “Houthi brutality against civilians in Yemen and their efforts to destabilize the region.”
“The Houthis’ torture and murder of an American civilian in their custody, and the Iranian regime’s support for terrorism and torture, are reprehensible behaviors consistent with outlaws from the civilized world,” the statement says.
Hoffman noted that if diplomatic relations between the United States and Iran ever thaw and Iran wants to do business here, it will have to be held financially accountable.
“They would be forced, at that point, to the answer to the Hamen family and the McAlister family for what they did,” he said. “Because they can’t just bring oil tankers over here without getting attached with the hundreds of billions of dollars that American citizens have judgments against them at this point. So while it may seem like a little bit of a fanciful idea that we could collect on this judgment now or that it would have any impact on the Iranians right now, it does, in the grand scheme of things, it makes a difference politically, economically, and obviously makes a difference to the families too.”
Original article available online through Courthouse News Service.
Three Americans who were taken hostage and tortured in Iraq claim in a federal complaint that Iran and prominent Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr gave material support to their abductors.
Russell Frost, Waiel el-Maadawy and Amr Mohamed brought their complaint Tuesday just over a year after their abduction. The Americans say they had been working in Iraq on a government contract to train Iraqi special forces when they were grabbed on Jan. 15, 2016, outside a translator’s apartment in Dora, a neighborhood of southeastern Baghdad.
The men initially thought they had been taken be Sunnis aligned with the Islamic State group, but el-Maadawy noticed an image of al-Sadr on one of his captor’s cellphones.
Al-Sadr led the Shiite Mahdi Army after the 2003 U.S.-led invasion of Iraq, which has been closely linked to the sectarian violence that plagued the country in its wake.
Since the U.S. has sided with al-Sadr-aligned militia groups in the fight against the Islamic State, this gave the men confidence that they might survive the ordeal.
Frost, el-Maadawy and Mohamed eventually learned that they had been abducted by Saraya al-Salam, a militia they say al-Sadr founded and Iran funds.
Lawsuits against Iran for providing material support to terror groups are fairly common, but the men’s filing in Washington marks perhaps the first time anyone has sued al-Sadr.
“We felt like he should be responsible for organizing and instructing the groups that took these guys captive just as much as Iran is,” Kevin Hoffman, an attorney for the former captives, said in an interview.
Hoffman’s clients say they were held incommunicado for 31 days, blindfolded at a compound in Sadr City, in violation of numerous international laws.
“The hostage takers kicked the legs out from underneath their hostages, forcing them to kneel before the mural of Muqtada al-Sadr, taped dirty rags over their eyes, bound their hands and feet, and taped rags over their mouths so tightly that the men could barely breathe,” the complaint states.
“Every day for the next three weeks, they underwent psychological and physical torture,” the lawsuit continues.
The three Americans said they slept in freezing cold, asbestos-laden cells and “learned to urinate in empty water bottles in order to avoid the beating they would receive whenever they asked to use a bathroom.”
“Furthermore, the men discovered evidence of brain matter, body tissue, and other human remains throughout the area where they were being kept,” the complaint continues.
Hoffman, an attorney with the firm Singer Davis in Virginia Beach, noted that two of his clients were able to listen to and converse with their captors because they speak Arabic fluently.
“The guards bragged to Waiel and Amr about their Iranian military training and the time they had spent with Hezbollah in Lebanon,” the complaint states. “They also told Waiel about how their financial resources, weapons, and equipment came directly from Iran.”
Hoffman could not say for sure if his client spoke the Iraqi dialect of Arabic.
“Their job was to train Iraqi special forces while they were over there, and so I would imagine they spoke the dialect on a regular basis,” he said.
According to the complaint, the State Department became aware as early as 2013 that Iran had plans to use “an obscure Islamist group and its regional proxies” to increase kidnapping operations against Americans.
The men claim that an anonymous State Department official had knowledge that the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad had received intelligence the week before their kidnapping that “an Iranian-backed Shia militia group wanted to seize American personnel.”
That threat was allegedly never communicated, however, to the trio.
The agency is not a defendant to the complaint, but the men say this same State Department official failed to warn the men because he had been optimistic that negotiations surrounding the Iranian nuclear deal would persuade Iran to restrain the militia.
Hoffman offered no comment on whether he has plans to take legal action against the U.S. government, saying only that he is investigating every possible avenue on behalf of his clients.
Upon their release, the three Americans were forced to thank al-Sadr in a video filmed in front of a large portrait of him.
“The men were also told to warn the United States that the Shia militias were prepared to resist if America tried to invade Iraq again,” the complaint states.
On July 17 – one day after the men’s release – al-Sadr said on his website that his militias would target U.S. individuals.
“This stance was re-affirmed in a televised interview with Muqtada al-Sadr’s official spokesman who stated ‘(w)e are thirst [sic] for Americans’ blood,’” the complaint says.
Hoffman said his clients are doing well as they recover from the experience.
“All three of them are exceedingly resilient guys,” Hoffman said. “They have a long history of public service and they’re not really dissuaded from that.”
Still, the men suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder and are undergoing medical treatment for lingering injuries.
“For instance the way they were bound for extended periods of time caused nerve damage in some of their limbs,” Hoffman said.
“They are doing their best to move on and they are recovering but there’s no doubt that they’re going to be affected by this physically and emotionally and mentally for a long time,” he added.
Neither the Iraqi embassy or the Iranian interest section of the Pakistani embassy in Washington responded to an emailed request for comment about the lawsuit.
Frost, el-Maadawy and Mohamed are seeking punitive damages for their confinement, and pain and suffering – including torture. The men had been working in Iraq for Blue Light LLC, a subcontractor of General Dynamics.
The following excerpts are taken from an article written by Randy Singer and Rosalyn Singer for publication in the Fall 2016 edition of the Journal of Local Government Law. The full-length article is available through the Virginia State Bar.
The conviction of former Governor Robert McDonnell and his wife on September 24, 2014, for alleged honest services fraud and Hobbs Act extortion, sent shock waves through the ranks of Virginia state and local officials. From the outset, the Government conceded that Governor McDonnell and his wife had not violated state laws but nevertheless claimed they had violated federal corruption statutes by performing official acts in exchange for various loans and gifts from Virginia businessman, Jonnie Williams.
. . .
The Court looked at two main issues. The first was whether the district court properly instructed the jury about what constituted “official action.” McDonnell, 136 S. Ct. at 2367. At the Government’s request, for example, the trial court told the jury that official action “encompasses ‘acts that a public official customarily performs,’ including acts ‘in furtherance of longer-term goals’ or ‘in a series of steps to exercise influence or achieve an end.’” Id. at 2366. . . . The second issue was a sufficiency challenge. Defense counsel argued both that the five acts specified in the indictment could not constitute “official acts” as a matter of law and that, even if they could, the evidence at trial did not support any attempt to influence an official decision or action. Id. at 2375.
. . .
In light of the virtually limitless reach of the “quid” and the guilt-by-implication possibilities for the “quo” element of the equation, as discussed above, the Court recognized the need to limit the “quo” so that public officials would not “be subject to prosecution, without fair notice, for the most prosaic interactions.” McDonnell, 136 S. Ct. at 2373. By its limitations on the reach of official action, the Court’s “more constrained interpretation” was designed to avoid a “vagueness shoal.” Id. . . . But even as the Court provided its limitations on the definition of official action, it still left a lot of gray on the margins. For example, public officials need not actually carry out the acts; it is enough if the official agrees to do them at some point in the future. Moreover, the official does not have to perform the official action himself, it is enough if he pressures someone else to do so. And all of this can be proven by circumstantial and indirect evidence, like any other conspiracy.
So, while the McDonnell opinion placed important restrictions on the Government’s unbounded definition of “official action,” it still left some areas of federal corruption law murky. Anyone who accepts a campaign contribution, enjoys a fine glass of wine at a constituent’s expense, or relaxes on a trout fishing trip should take note.
Original article available online through The Virginian-Pilot.
Federal prosecutors will not attempt to retry former Gov. Bob McDonnell and his wife, Maureen McDonnell, on corruption charges, the U.S. Attorney’s Office said Thursday.
Other than formal court action, the announcement brings the McDonnell legal epic to an end.
Bob McDonnell’s sister, whose name also is Maureen McDonnell, said by phone Thursday that the family wanted to thank the many supporters who helped them get through the case, and is grateful it’s over.
“We just found out. … It was just – we were really ecstatic about the dismissal,” she said. “It’s been a long 3½-year ordeal for our family. We never lost hope that Bob would be vindicated.”
In a statement released by his New York public relations company, Bob McDonnell said, in part: “I have become grateful for this experience of suffering, having used it to examine deeply all aspects of my life, and my role in the circumstances that led to this painful time for my beloved family and Commonwealth. I am thankful to God for teaching me new lessons about His grace, mercy, and providence.”
Bill Burck, a lawyer for his wife Maureen McDonnell, said in an email statement: “We thank the Department of Justice for the care with which they reviewed the case. We are thrilled and thankful that Maureen can now move on with her life.”
A jury convicted the McDonnells in 2014 of multiple counts of corruption, and Bob McDonnell appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court, where he won. The case was sent back to an appellate court for a decision on whether McDonnell could be retried following the Supreme Court’s ruling in June that jurors were not properly instructed on federal bribery law and may have convicted him in error.
Federal prosecutors asked for an extension of their Aug. 29 deadline to decide whether to retry McDonnell. According to a Washington Post report, they recommended to the Department of Justice in Washington that he be retried.
The news is a huge victory for the McDonnells, whose indictments and convictions led to changes in state law related to gifts. They were found guilty of taking official action for businessman Jonnie Williams, who was seeking state support for a dietary supplement.
U.S. Attorney Dana Boente for Virginia’s Eastern District issued a three-sentence news release that said:
“Today the United States moved to dismiss the charges against Robert F. McDonnell and his wife Maureen McDonnell.
“After carefully considering the Supreme Court’s recent decision and the principles of federal prosecution, we have made the decision not to pursue the case further.
“The department thanks the trial team and its investigative partners for their outstanding work on this case.”
Bob McDonnell has insisted that while he made mistakes when he and his wife accepted more than $170,000 in swanky gifts and off-the-books loans from Williams, he took no official action in return and did not break the law.
He took the stand in his own defense during his approximately five-week trial in Richmond in 2014, as his attorneys presented evidence that his relationship with his wife was on the verge of collapse. Legal experts later criticized that defense strategy.
A judge sentenced McDonnell to two years in prison and his wife to a year and a day. They remained free on appeal.
McDonnell, a former prosecutor and lawmaker in Virginia Beach who served as state attorney general before his election as governor in 2009, was previously considered as someone whose GOP political career would extend beyond his four-year term. But the January 2014 indictment and prosecution cut that short and replaced it with images of McDonnell wearing a Rolex watch provided by Williams and driving Williams’ Ferrari.
Williams was granted immunity in exchange for his testimony against the McDonnells.
McDonnell bolstered his appellate filings with briefs of support from political and business leaders, including former state and federal attorneys general who argued he had committed no crime and that federal bribery law was too broad.
Democratic Gov. Terry McAuliffe, who succeeded McDonnell, said in June that McDonnell should not be retried.
Jeff McWaters, a friend of McDonnell’s in Virginia Beach and a former state lawmaker, said he would have been shocked if the Justice Department had moved forward with a new trial.
“Everybody is just very, very, very pleased,” he said. The McDonnells “have been vindicated completely by the United States Supreme Court.”
McWaters also said the federal justice system – with prosecutors who leak information and are “willing to ruin people’s lives” – needs analysis.
Randy Singer, another lawyer for Maureen McDonnell, said in an email that she is “serving with some non-profits, re-planting her roots in the Hampton Roads community, and cherishing her time with her family, including her four grandchildren. She will be forever grateful for this day, a day that marks a fresh start for both Governor and Mrs. McDonnell, and a day where they can shift their focus from the legal battle that has consumed them to giving back to the Commonwealth that has meant so much to them.”
Bob McDonnell has started a consulting business with his sister.
Houthi rebels tortured and killed a Chesapeake man in Yemen last year after detaining and accusing him and another American contractor of being spies after they arrived in the war-torn country on a United Nations plane, according to a federal lawsuit by the men’s families.
The complaint filed this month in Washington accuses the Syrian and Iranian governments of sponsoring terrorism by providing material support to the Houthis, a Shiite rebel group.
The court document provides the first detailed account of John Hamen’s capture and death, which first was made public in November when his wife posted on Facebook that the Army veteran and father of seven had died in captivity within weeks of arriving in the Middle Eastern country as a State Department contractor.
At the time, the Houthis still held the other contractor and the State Department and United Nations were saying little about why the men were arrested at the Sanaa airport Oct. 20 and what happened to them. The other contractor – Mark McAlister of Greenfield, Tenn. – was released into U.S. custody in April.
The lawsuit contends that Hamen and McAlister were imprisoned to compel Saudi Arabia to stop bombing Yemen or to use the men as a negotiating tactic to secure the release of other combatants. The lawsuit says all efforts to secure Hamen’s release through hostage negotiations were “fruitless.”
The Houthis took Hamen’s body to a local hospital Nov. 6, then transferred it to the U.S. embassy in Oman where he was identified by his tattoos, the lawsuit says. State Department officials told Hamen’s wife the Houthis found her husband dead in his room.
But an autopsy performed at Dover Air Force Base in Delaware concluded the cause of death was asphyxia and the manner of death was homicide, the lawsuit says. The autopsy noted that Hamen had sizable lacerations on his head, fractured right ribs and many abrasions and contusions.
“The primary evidence of torture is from John Hamen’s autopsy,” Randy Singer, a Virginia Beach attorney representing the Hamen and McAlister families, said in an email. “Although Mark McAlister did not witness the physical torture of John, since they were separated soon after they were taken hostage, his testimony of the conditions, and of what he does know about John’s captivity, is consistent with the autopsy report.”
The lawsuit says their captors separated McAlister and Hamen within hours after they were detained. The Houthis extensively searched the equipment and computers of both men looking for evidence of espionage, but found none, according to Singer.
McAlister was kept in inhumane conditions for the duration of his captivity, with no contact with anyone other than his captors who interrogated him for hours each night, the lawsuit says. He was locked in a 12-by-9½-foot concrete cell with no light and a hole in the floor for a toilet. The Houthis allowed McAlister to go outside to the prison yard three times during his captivity – the only times he saw sunlight.
The lawsuit says McAlister was forced to wear the same clothes for six months, use the bathroom without toilet paper and subsist on a bare-minimum amount of food and water. While confined, McAlister lost so much weight his ribs and backbone were clearly visible, the lawsuit says.
“He was repeatedly interrogated, threatened, intimidated and psychologically and physically abused, deprived, and manipulated,” the lawsuit says.
McAlister and his family seek $319 million in damages. Hamen’s family seeks more than $350 million.
Syria and Iran – which do not have embassies in the United States – have not responded to the lawsuit.
“Frankly, we don’t expect either country to honor the judgment from a US court voluntarily,” Singer said in his email.
If the court issues a judgment for the families, they can be paid from the U.S. Victims of State Sponsored Terrorism Fund. Singer said his legal team also would search for assets or money traceable to Iran or Syria that the U.S. government could seize.
The lawsuit cites a confidential 2015 U.N. report that says Iran provided military support to Houthis in Yemen through arms transfers and brought thousands of Houthi soldiers into military camps in southern Syria to gain combat and weapons experience.
“Iran and Syria support the Houthis’ military activities with the intention of weakening American allies in the Middle East, including the internationally recognized government of Yemen and its close ally Saudi Arabia,” the lawsuit says. “As such, Defendants’ provision of material military and economic support to the Houthis is intentional, wanton, and willful, with the understanding that violence against Americans such as John Hamen is an expected and welcomed result of such support.”
Hamen and McAlister’s employer had a contract to maintain a former hotel that had been turned into a diplomatic transit facility adjacent to the U.S. embassy, which was in use by the United Nations.
The U.S. suspended its embassy operations in Yemen on Feb. 11, 2015, because of deteriorating security conditions. The Houthis recently had overthrown the internationally recognized government, which led to a civil war. The United Nations was allowed to use the U.S. facility as a local headquarters.
Despite the evacuation of U.S. personnel, the State Department kept its contract with Tampa, Fla.-based Advanced C4 Solutions to retrofit the former Sheraton Hotel to improve security and communications systems. Hamen’s job entailed identifying potential security risks throughout the facility and implementing strategies to mitigate them, Singer said. McAlister was a general contractor in charge of renovations.
AC4S’s biggest customer is the Defense Department, although it also provides services to the State Department in Libya, Yemen, Iraq and Haiti, according to its website. AC4S hired Hamen in July and he traveled to Djibouti in east Africa in October, where he boarded the United Nations aircraft to nearby Yemen.
Singer said Hamen’s family also has requested $2.1 million in compensation from the United Nations.
“This request was based on the fact that John Hamen was instructed to enter a dangerous situation in Yemen to provide enhanced security for United Nations personnel, that he entered Yemen via a United Nations flight, and that the United Nations, in conjunction with the United States and AC4S, made the assessment that it was safe to bring an American into Yemen despite significant indications to the contrary,” Singer said.
The United Nations has not responded to the request, Singer said.
Hamen served in the Army for more than two decades and deployed to Iraq before retiring in 2012. He is buried at Arlington National Cemetery.
McAlister previously had worked in the Middle East for private paramilitary contractors. He was released April 29 and arrived home in Tennessee in May, just in time to see one of his three children graduate from the University of Tennessee at Martin. The crowd welcomed him with a standing ovation.
“Because of the circumstances, I really didn’t think I was going to make it. As a matter of fact, I kind of decided not to even hope for it,” McAlister told WBBJ-TV at the time. “I tried to take my mind off of it but again, God made two miracles appear and I’m here today.”
Original article available online through World Magazine.
Randy Singer is a man of many talents, three of which stand out. He’s a lawyer who heads his own firm, a pastor of Trinity Church in Virginia Beach, and an award-winning author of 15 books, most of them legal thrillers.
Do you feel equally called in all three? Yes. I believe that the next Great Awakening in America will take place when laymen and laywomen wake up and realize that ministry is everywhere—not just within the walls of the church, not just “full-time Christian ministry.”
How are the three fields similar? They all require skills in persuasion, in telling stories to illustrate things.
You joke on your website about pastor and attorney as Jekyll and Hyde … In reality I try to be the same person. Some of the best lawyers I know are not some of the meanest lawyers I know.
Surveys show a lot of dissatisfaction among lawyers. Why? The whole practice of law has degenerated in many ways to pitched battles about minutia. If you can rise above that, you’ll be a much better lawyer.
Some Patrick Henry students here wonder if Christian lawyers are different? I see more satisfaction among Christians than non-Christians because Christians look at it as a ministry. A lot go into public interest law, or are prosecutors, or work in international justice ministries.
Do good writing and good legal work go together? One of the big misconceptions is that lawyers run around the courtroom like they do on TV, waving their arms and making objections. Really, the best lawyers are the best writers. A lot of cases are decided on the briefs submitted to the court and the written submissions before you ever get to court.
Your first novel, Directed Verdict, won a Christy Award for the best Christian suspense novel. It centers on a lawsuit against Saudi Arabia when an American missionary is killed, and it brings out persecution of Christians in the Middle East, a very contemporary issue, but you developed the book before 9/11 … God put on my heart this idea of the persecution of the international church: How do you wake up Americans to realize how horrific this is?
Did you have an agent? No, but after about three or four months a publisher called and said, “We really like the idea, but we don’t want it to take place in the Middle East. Let’s do it in China.” I turned down that opportunity and said it needed to happen in Saudi Arabia. Publication was in 2001, the year of 9/11, and afterward a pastor who had been in Saudi Arabia told me how he was tortured in the same way it was described in the book.
What type of research did you have to do in order to have that degree of authenticity? The Web is a wonderful thing, so I started there and did a lot of legal research. I talked with missionaries who work around the world and are involved in church planting movements. For any book you want to do a lot of interviews of people who live that life.
Some college students who are good writers go into MFA—Master of Fine Arts—programs. They learn about particular techniques and maybe look deep into themselves, but they don’t really know anything about the world, so the plots tend to be very internally focused. When I started I was a poor writer but a good storyteller, because I’d lived, I understood the stories, I practiced law. Somebody helped me become a better writer, but I don’t think anybody could have helped me become a better storyteller. That has to be lived out in the real world.
What did you learn as you wrote more novels? First, that you don’t have to hit readers over the head with the points you’re making. You can be more subtle. Second, how to write spiritual themes that are more organic to the story. Third, to be less verbose and let the action carry the story instead of thinking, “What are some really flowery and cool phrases and words that I can weave into this?”
You have the advantage of years in the law, and many writers like Ernest Hemingway got their start as newspaper writers. I’d like to see an MFA program that involved working as a lawyer or a journalist for a couple of years, so as not to be a hothouse plant. When you lose the desire to be known as a great wordsmith and have somebody say, “Oh, look at the way he phrased this,” when your only desire is to tell the story so people don’t even notice the wording, at that point you’ve become a fiction author.
Your most recent novel, The Advocate, is not set in contemporary America but in Israel and Rome 2,000 years ago. Tell us about the plot. As a storyteller it seems to me that the book of Acts ends in a most unsatisfactory way. Paul, who has been the hero, is now imprisoned in Rome, waiting to stand trial in front of Nero, the world’s most notorious emperor. Wondering why Acts would end that way, I came across a theory that Luke and Acts were actually legal briefs written to Theophilus, who was the Apostle Paul’s lawyer—a Greek-trained, Roman lawyer who had visited Paul in prison and asked about this illegal new religion. Paul and Luke started saying, “Jesus did all these miracles, then he was crucified,” and Theophilus said, “Wait a minute, just write it all down, and let me take it from there.”
And you have Theophilus as a young lawyer serving as Pontius Pilate’s law clerk, standing behind him and coming up with the bright idea to offer Barabbas … The Theophilus idea captured my life. The other books take a year to write, this one took about five years. Theophilus feels responsible for the crucifixion of Jesus, an innocent man. His lawyer’s life is forever changed by witnessing the shambles that Roman law was at the time.
Do you have another contemporary legal thriller in mind? I’ve been impressed by how much power the federal government has in America today, and how much of that power rests in the hands of prosecutors. We have theoretical advantages for the defendant, but in reality, when the federal government puts a target on your back, 98 percent of the time you’d better plead guilty and take whatever they offer.
But you’re also thinking about more historical fiction … Theophilus’ son would live through the age where the nascent Christian movement was suffering intense persecution but at the same time spreading throughout the Roman Empire, taking over in a society that’s very much like America today.
Which way will you go? I really don’t know. I’ve been asking people, “What intrigues you more?” because I don’t write for my own self-satisfaction. I try to write things people will read.
Click here to view the full video of Marvin Olasky’s interview of Randy Singer.
Original article available online through the Richmond Times Dispatch.
MONTROSS — A four-man, three-woman jury Thursday night awarded an $8 million judgment against a Northern Neck restaurant owner whose wife was found dead of exposure on their 40-acre, snowbound property in February 2010.
Jurors deliberated just more than two hours after a three-day trial before issuing the verdict on behalf of the estate of Sally Rumsey, 42, and directed that the money be parceled out to Rumsey’s 28-year-old daughter and a 21-year-old daughter Rumsey had with defendant Stephen Andersen, 62.
Family members and supporters of Rumsey broke into tears at the decision, which also included a plaintiff’s verdict in favor of Sarah Thrift, Rumsey’s older daughter, whose lawyer argued that Andersen should not benefit from Rumsey’s estate. The disbursement of the estate will be argued at some future date. Defense lawyer John P. Harris III said he will appeal the verdict.
Plaintiff lawyer Randy Singer said that the award was a “reflection by the jurors of the regard held for Sally Rumsey in this community.” In court filings nearly four years ago, Singer asked for $10 million in the case.
The panel awarded $6 million in compensatory damages and $2 million in punitive damages.
The jury’s foreperson said jurors voted unanimously in both cases on the first vote and that jurors felt Rumsey’s death may have been prevented had Andersen done more to locate her on a frigid winter night. Andersen did not report Rumsey’s disappearance for 48 hours as a blinding snow storm covered the Northern Neck. Andersen testified he did what he could to locate his wife on the property but assumed she had left the area after an argument Feb. 5. Her frozen body was located by a Virginia State Trooper near the home on Feb. 9.
Thursday’s proceeding was highlighted by strained testimony from the defendant. Even his own lawyer told the jury that Andersen struggled to explain what transpired the day his wife disappeared. She was found four days later partially covered with snow about 80 yards from the couple’s rural home north of Haynesville.
“Even if you hate him, it doesn’t mean you don’t treat him fairly,” attorney John P. Harris III told the jury on Thursday. “He’s just who he is — he’s petrified. He runs off his mouth and tries to explain.”
In his 75-minute appearance on the stand Thursday, Andersen at one point paused for more than a minute wringing his hands and shifting his posture trying to answer a question about his belief of how his wife died.
In a sworn affidavit he had said that Rumsey didn’t commit suicide but “may have.” Thursday, after struggling uncomfortably, he said, “It’s the wrong answer because I believe she did commit suicide.”
At another point Andersen explained to the jury the reason 48 hours elapsed before he reported Rumsey’s absence to police on the evening of Feb. 7, 2010, Super Bowl Sunday.
“I didn’t think she was missing,” he said. “I just didn’t know where she was.”
Key conflicts in the case involved expert testimony dealing with the cause and manner of Rumsey’s death.
Kevin Whaley of the state medical examiner’s office testified that Rumsey was frozen solid and had to be “de-frosted” after she was discovered Feb. 9 and the body was brought to Richmond. Whaley refused to back off a conclusion that Rumsey took her own life, apparently wandering off from the home with a slightly elevated blood alcohol level and with a presence of the sleep narcotic Ambien in her system that was slightly above the high end of dosage levels.
Whaley conceded that the manner of death may have been accidental but flatly refused any suggestion that the death was a homicide.
Other testimony highlighted the odd position of Rumsey’s body, which was on its side but not in a fetal position in freezing weather. No snow was found beneath her body and a partially empty wine bottle was nearby but possibly propped up in fallen snow.
Singer, who argued the case on behalf of two plaintiffs, Rumsey’s estate and Thrift, presented other testimony that downplayed the death as accidental and incorporated testimony showing years of aggravation in a volatile marriage that even Andersen said was marked by agreements to simply ignore each other when arguments got heated.
“I would never have called police,” Andersen said when asked about the 48-hour lapse, explaining that Rumsey would not have wanted the community to know about troubles within the family or bring unwanted attention to herself.
Rumsey had returned days before her disappearance from a three-week bicycling trip to Asia, was exhausted, and almost immediately Rumsey and Andersen began sniping at each another, according to Andersen.
One argument was over no salt in the house for cooking, but Singer discounted a story told by Andersen to investigators that involved an eruption between the couple over Andersen’s viewing of pornography.
Andersen presented that scenario as police in Westmoreland began questioning him, but Singer told the jury that the porn argument was a ruse to explain why anger developed between the couple and why Andersen couldn’t account for Rumsey’s whereabouts.
Andersen told police he left the home to walk the dogs after the blowup only to return home and find his wife gone but key personal items still at the home, including car keys, credit cards and personal identification.
Rumsey, who had operated the popular Good Eats Café in Kinsale for nearly 20 years with Andersen, revealed fears and examples about spousal abuse to a waitress who also operated a shelter. That woman, Colleen Jordan, begged Rumsey to leave the home before she was killed. Rumsey acknowledged that dozens of signs of abuse and potential harm were part of her relationship.
Singer told the jury of Andersen’s dismissiveness and seeming lack of concern about his wife, including an episode in which Andersen told a relative days after Rumsey was found that he “had perfected the act of moving forward.” He also prepared a checklist warning himself to show emotion at Rumsey’s memorial service, according to testimony.
No criminal charges have been brought against Andersen, who was listed early on in the investigation of Rumsey’s death as a suspect. But throughout the three-day trial this week, Westmoreland’s prosecutor has been scribbling notes to herself accompanied by investigators who have been integral in looking into Rumsey’s death.
Commonwealth’s Attorney Julia Hutt Sichol declined to comment when asked if she is preparing a criminal case in the matter.
Original article available online through Attorney at Law Magazine.
At first blush, Randy Singer’s roles as a distinguished civil litigator, teaching pastor at Trinity Church and prolific author may seem diametrically opposed. “I’ve been a storyteller from a young age. That is probably the common theme of my three chosen professions,” Singer said.
According to Singer, the professions of attorney and pastor have much in common. “In both professions, you are trying to persuade people of something. In one case it’s a jury and in another it’s a congregation. In both professions, there is a big premium on counseling, and you have to be a good listener to be a good counselor. In both, you are helping people at a great point of need. Both require rigorous analytical thinking.”
“Historically, a lot of pastors have had legal training,” Singer said. He cited the example of 19th century theological leader Charles Finney, who was a lawyer before he found his calling as the father of modern revivalism. Part of Finney’s persuasiveness as a Christian leader derived from the fact that “he talked to people like he was speaking to a jury,” Singer explained.
During his undergraduate studies as a pre-law major, Singer clerked for a New York lawyer. “The most important challenges that we face as a society are hashed out in a courtroom. I wanted to be a part of that.”
Singer was accepted at Cornell Law School, but he decided to postpone his law career to spend a few years teaching and coaching. He taught at an international boarding school that included students from all over the world. “It was a great multicultural experience. It also taught me to think on my feet and helped me become more disciplined.”
Singer graduated from the William and Mary Law School and began his legal career at the firm of Willcox & Savage in Norfolk, Va. “I was well-trained at Willcox and Savage. It is one of the most highly regarded firms in this area. I learned to do things with excellence there. I think those formative years are so important. I was blessed in two ways. First, I had really good mentors. Second, it happened at a time when there was a boom in commercial litigation. I got so much experience so early,” Singer said. Among Singer’s notable mentors, he named Palmer Rutherford and Conrad Shumadine. Rutherford was an insurance litigator.
“He got me into court and trained me in the basics. He was always there to lift me up when I was down and cut me down a few notches when I got too cocky. Conrad Shumadine is a nationally respected media lawyer. He is just a really strategic thinker.
I was fortunate to have this combination of mentors; one who emphasized courtroom tactics and another who was a strategic, big picture guy. They both trusted me with a lot of responsibility.”
Eventually, Singer decided to open his own civil litigation practice. “We like to say that we are a small firm with a big firm mentality,” Singer said. Singer describes his practice philosophy as characterized by three primary principles: first, “commitment to excellence. Most of our cases are on contingency. We have the freedom to put in as much time as it takes to get it right.”
For example, when the firm has a large case, they will typically engage in one or more mock trials before the case goes to trial. “The mock trials help us get a jump on the case and stay focused on what will matter at trial.”
“Second, we take a holistic approach to things. We are not just advocates, we are also counselors. I take that role seriously. Our clients become our friends. We develop life-long relationships with many of them.”
“A third thing is our ability to handle the most complex civil cases without being a big firm. To do that, we will sometimes partner with other firms,” Singer explained.
Singer represents that “the best advertising for an author is a word-of-mouth recommendation from an excited reader. The same is true in the law profession.” Singer’s “book” of business comes from other lawyers, former clients and friends and associates in the community at large. “It helps that I am very involved in the community and local law school. I meet a lot of people.”
Singer’s daughter, Rosalyn Singer, joined the firm last year. “It’s great to have her here. Her office is right across the hall from mine. It’s more rewarding to build a firm knowing that one of your kids will be a part of it long term. I’m discovering practice again through the eyes of a new attorney, and that keeps it fresh,” Singer said.
According to Singer, he has adapted his own early perceptions of the practice of law to accept that the law is also a business. “You can’t just be a good lawyer. You have to be a good business person, as well.” He has also seen a general trend away from courtroom litigation practice to one that resolves cases in a number of different ways.
Singer teaches a law school class called The Art of Advocacy. He opines that the principles of advocacy remain the same regardless of the forum. Most cases today are not resolved in a courtroom, but through some form of alternative dispute resolution. “I think that law schools are a little slow to respond to that new reality about how cases get resolved.”
Singer laments that “there is more vitriol than there should be in the practice of law. There is so much needless emotional energy burned bickering over extraneous matters. It doesn’t advance the ball. I want to win. I want my client to win. But I’m not going to take ethical shortcuts. That’s where my spiritual side comes in. I want to practice law in a way that God can honor.”
Among Singer’s notable cases, his firm represented the daughters of Hamilton Somerville in a wrongful death case against their stepmother aft er she had been acquitted of criminal charges in the death of their father. Singer was able to prove that Hamilton Somerville had been poisoned by his wife, leading to a recovery of a family estate worth millions by the daughters. The events that led to the case became a Lifetime movie called “Widow on the Hill.”
Singer also appeared as lead counsel in the case of Farley v. Guns Unlimited on behalf of the family of teacher Karen Farley. Farley was slain at Atlantic Shores Christian School by a 16-year-old student who had purchased a semi-automatic weapon through a straw buyer, his uncle. This was a landmark case in Virginia and the first in the state to receive gavel-to-gavel television coverage.
Singer has authored 13 novels and three works of non-fiction. His cases are sometimes the inspiration for the material he writes. His novel, “The Justice Game,” arose out of the Farley case. In his Author’s Note for the novel, Singer wrote, “Atlantic Shores was the school where my wife taught. The school my kids attended (though they were not there that day). When I learned that Elliot had purchased the gun illegally from a gun store in Isle of Wight County (through a transaction referred to as a “straw purchase transaction”), I ended up representing the family of Karen Farley in an unprecedented lawsuit against that gun store. The verdict shocked everyone.”
The Somerville case inspired his novel entitled “The Last Plea Bargain.” Singer did extensive research about drug testing for the case, which provided interesting material for his book.
The ABA Journal and the University of Alabama Law School recently joined to co-sponsor the Harper Lee Prize for Legal Fiction. The prize is awarded to authors of books written in the spirit of Atticus Finch, the lawyer-hero in “To Kill a Mockingbird.”
Singer was one of the finalists selected for the inaugural prize last year, an honor he shared with John Grisham and Michael Connelly. “I’m kind of a unique creature, wearing the hat of a pastor, an author and a lawyer, and I’ve known many lawyers who felt like they had to check their spirituality at the door. Our profession is not really set up to minister to clients holistically anymore….We almost feel like we have to confine ourselves to a narrow area of someone’s life, but when you go back to Atticus Finch, that wasn’t his mentality at all.”