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August 25, 1998

Law School of Hard Knocks

by David Underhill

Larry D. Simpson's head probably hurt often during the years of study for his Juris Doctor degree from Birmingham's Miles Law School in 1987. But those headaches were a Tylenol trifle compared to the big, throbbing one his law degree brought him in the Mobile metro jail ten years later. A scar across his brow and diminished hearing in his left ear are permanent reminders of the blows he received there.

These headaches are contagious. Simpson is now delivering one to Mobile county circuit court judge Chris Galanos by suing him in federal court. The suit asserts, among other things, that Galanos jailed Simpson by signing "a bench warrant against Plaintiff, thus causing Plaintiff personal injury and property damage in violation of Plaintiff's Civil Rights." Although Simpson doesn't contend that the judge personally bashed his head in the jail, he does assert "that Chris Galanos and the State of Alabama intended the personal injury outcome for the Plaintiff."

Simpson's law degree led to this exchange of pain by a circuitous route, as befits a legal snarl. Upon graduation he did not follow the usual career path of taking the bar exam and joining the state bar association. Instead he and several other law school grads created their own Universal Bar Association and began offering their services, particularly to people skeptical of standard lawyers or frightened by their fees.

Did this constitute the misdemeanor of "unauthorized practice of law"? The local DA's office thought so and had Simpson arrested at the courthouse in December, 1996 as he attempted to represent a man who had signed a power-of-attorney document for Simpson to handle his divorce case. But the DA had hardly acted alone. A front page story in the February, 1997 issue of the state bar association's newsletter, Addendum, happily credited Simpson's arrest to a "combined effort" of "the court hearing the domestic suit, the Mobile County District Attorney, and the state bar, who had been investigating Simpson for some time."

With such a weighty array -- also some evidence and testimony -- against him, Simpson lost. In March, 1997 district court judge Dominick Matranga (now retired) found him guilty and fined him $100 plus court costs, with a 30-day jail sentence suspended. Matranga eventually dismissed similar charges against another defendant, Jerry H. Pogue. (see Harbinger, 1/7, 2/18, 3/24, 10/7/97)

Simpson, a feisty fellow who does not accept defeat gracefully, appealed his conviction, and the legal tangles got knottier. The fat file of his district court case contains a form titled NOTICE OF APPEAL TO THE COURT OF CRIMINAL APPEALS OF ALABAMA (DIRECT APPEAL FROM DISTRICT COURT). Simpson expected that submitting this completed form would begin the process of transferring his case to the appeals court in Montgomery. It is dated March 28, 1997.

But the only entries for that date on the docket of his district court case say: "Notice of Appeal filed" and "Case Appealed. Send to Circuit Court under the Same $500.00 Consolidated bond." Simpson believes these entries indicate that the judges and the staff of the Mobile court system never intended to cooperate with his attempt to lodge his appeal directly with the state appeals court, which declined to hear his case. Simpson says the appeals court clerk in Montgomery explained to him that the documentation necessary to proceed there never arrived from Mobile.

Exactly how Simpson's appeal migrated instead to the circuit court in Mobile remains a mystery. He says district court clerk Alice Cornelson told him that judge Matranga instructed her to send his case up to the Mobile circuit court. This reporter's attempt to verify that proved futile. A search through courthouse files and several conversations with clerks failed to discover any document showing who did what to make Simpson's case appear on the circuit court docket as an appeal in the form of a new trail, judge Galenos presiding.

Simpson resisted this maneuver. "How can they direct a man's appeal?" he asks. "That's not constitutional." So he "chose not to deal with the state court." He filed papers to remove his case to the federal court here and informed the circuit court that he had done so. Simpson argues that this maneuver of his handcuffed the circuit court -- at least until the feds decided whether to accept his case.

Judge Galanos disagreed, and Simpson became the one handcuffed. When he didn't appear in Galanos' court on the morning of his scheduled trial, June 24, 1997, the judge signed a warrant for his arrest. Simpson and an associate, James Dixon, report that a "swat squad" of several officers swooped down on Simpson's house that morning and took him to jail in cuffs.

He never saw who hit him with what from behind in jail. Simpson says he just heard a big BOOM! in his head, and then he woke up on the floor, bleeding. When he tried to rise, "blood just shot up everywhere."

After some wrangling over procedures, he was hauled to the university hospital for stitches to close the large gash on his forehead and smaller ones on the top and left side of his head. Simpson says that when he was returned to jail the same evening, none of the jail personnel showed any interest in finding out who had beaten him or why.

Other prisoners raised a ruckus when Simpson was summoned to appear in court, still wearing his bloody shirt. They insisted that he receive a clean one, which materialized from somewhere.

Dixon was a courtroom spectator that morning. He says the clean shirt didn't improve Simpson's appearance much. Dried blood was visible under his chin and on his neck. The stitches bristled on his forehead. And "the whole left side of his head was swollen up."

But judge Galanos took no apparent notice of this, according to Simpson and Dixon. He simply disposed of the case and Simpson. The docket says: "As defendant failed to appear when this case was set for trial, on motion of the State, it is ordered and adjudged by the Court that the defendant's appeal is dismissed and case ordered remanded to the District Court. Defendant ordered released from custody."

Besides the souvenir scar and hearing loss, Simpson was also left with about $5,000 in medical bills. And he continues to practice law -- on his own behalf at least. His current suit in federal court against Judge Galanos and the state of Alabama demands compensation not only for the alleged violation of Simpson's civil rights but also for "injury done to and wrong suffered by Plaintiff."

Judge Galanos did not respond to a request for his views on the tussle with Simpson. The judge's attorney, Christ Coumanis, did respond -- but only to say that he would not comment on pending litigation. For the same reason the sheriff's spokeswoman, Carol Joiner, declined to discuss any injuries Simpson may have received in jail. She merely confirmed that he was a prisoner from June 24-27, 1997.

The Harbinger, P.O. Box U-980, Mobile, AL 36688-0001