Appeals Update #8 — The State Responds Part 1: What is with the errors?

The State of Indiana filed its reply brief on April 4, 2014. It is the largest of the briefs, coming in at 61 pages. The State of Indiana’s brief was written by Deputy Attorney General Ian McLean on behalf of Greg Zoeller, the Attorney General of Indiana. Earlier on in the process Mr. McLean had asked the appeals court for an extension in time and an increase in the size of the brief he was going to present. Both of these requests were approved. We tweeted our agreement with this approval because Mr. McLean had to address the issues raised in the four briefs presented by the lawyers for Levi Sparks, Blake Layman, Juvenile Law Center, and the Indiana Public Defender Council.

 Mr. McLean obviously had a lot of research and a lot of work to prepare his brief, but writing briefs for the Indiana Court of Appeals is his job. On first reading, what was surprising was the number of obvious errors that were made. There were the obvious typing errors such as on page 17 when Mr. McLean wrote “fats” instead of “facts”. There were the careless errors such as on the last page when Mr. McLean misspelled the name of one of the other lawyers, Joel M. Schumm, who also happens to be a highly respected professor at Indiana University, Robert H. McKinney School of Law. But the most concerning error happened on the first line of page 2 under the heading “Statement of the Case”. Mr. McLean wrote, “On October 9, 2012, the State charged Blake Layman and Anthony Sparks (“Defendants”) with felony murder.” There is no defendant named ‘Anthony Sparks’ in this case. This brief is specifically focused on Levi Sparks and Blake Layman.

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Page 2 of the brief filed by the State of Indiana.

Spelling and careless errors are everywhere. I am certain that there are many in this blog. Spelling is not my strong point and, truth be told, the management and writing of this blog is done 100% by me. I have had a few people point out my errors and I correct those errors and I am grateful for their help. But writing this blog is not my career. I am not paid to do this and my blog is not an official government operation. Given the resources and budget of the Office of the Attorney General, briefs should be sent out without careless mistakes. Given the volume of appeals filed each year, production of briefs should be down to a fine art in the Attorney General’s Office.  The lawyers writing the appeals should have an absolute commitment to methodically checking all briefs for both basic and complex errors. The quality of the writing is a direct reflection on Mr. McLean, the Office of the Attorney General, and the State of Indiana. The failure to correct basic errors leaves the reader with a negative impression, but the use of incorrect names, especially in the naming of one of the defendants, is very concerning.

If the State of Indiana is going to justify a 50-year prison sentence for a 17-year-old boy, then it better know who that boy is. Perhaps Mr. McLean viewed the writing of this brief as an exercise in academics, but this is not academics. It is real life. Levi Sparks is a real person— a flawed person perhaps— but a real person with dreams, aspirations, and a family. Through his lawyers, Levi Sparks is appealing to the court to have his case reviewed. This appeal is Levi’s legal right. Both the Government of Indiana and Mr. McLean have an obligation to respect the appeals process. But how is this respect demonstrated when, in the first full page of writing, the government can’t even write the correct name of the person who filed the appeal? This is a flagrant, careless, and insulting response to Levi Sparks, his lawyers and the other participants.  These errors disrespect the appeals process. If the state is going to remove someone’s liberty, does it not have an obligation to know who that person is?

It is important to remind Mr. Zoeller and Mr. McLean that judges and the public are taking notice when lawyers produce careless work product.  In 1986 the 7th Circuit Court ruled in the case of United States. v. Devine.  The judges in their ruling stated,

The brief was desultory in nature; in general a poorly written product with numerous typographical errors.  It was obviously never edited by a caring professional.  As a panel of judges already overburdened with cases and paper, we find it insulting to have to dutifully comb through a brief which even its author found little reason to give such attention.  We condemn this type of shoddy professionalism.

The production of these briefs is a time consuming and expensive process. Both Levi Sparks and Blake Layman have in one form or another been declared “forma pauperis”.  This basically means they don’t have the money to finance the appeals. Their lawyers are not making a lot of money, because their clients don’t have money. The Juvenile Law Center is a non-profit organization and the Indiana Public Defenders Council is funded by the Indiana taxpayer ($1.3 million in 2012). The resources available for these groups are limited. According to the Government of Indiana Website, the Office of the Attorney General for Indiana has an annual budget of over 14 million dollars and over 100 lawyers. In the office of the Attorney General there is an entire department dedicated to handling criminal appeals. This department writes briefs daily. Of all the participants in this case the State of Indiana has the resources, legal expertise, and experience to ensure that the briefs they file are accurate, carefully researched, and respectful. The careless mistakes in the brief filed by Ian McLean demonstrate a lack of effort to ensure accuracy. When there is a lack of effort to ensure accuracy in the writing of a brief, one must begin to question the accuracy of the arguments being made in the brief.

In a future post we will have a closer look at some of the arguments Mr. McLean and the State of Indiana made in their brief.

Our Tweets from March 31 agreeing with the decision to give Indiana more time to file the brief while also increasing the number of pages the state could produce.

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An example of a basic spelling error in the brief.

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The misspelling of the name of lawyer Joel M. Schumm

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