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Lawsuit of the Day: I’m not entirely sure what to do with this …

January 1, 2012

2. Law, 6. Trial, 8. Lawsuits

Lawsuit of the Day:  I’m not entirely sure what to do with this …

So I pull a civil complaint – Estate of Stacie Smith v. Casto.  I immediately set aside that the attorney, filing on behalf of the mother as personal representative for the estate, misspelled Stacie’s name in the caption as “Stacice.”  I like civil cases that have underlying criminal matters.  Stacie, sad to say, was murdered.  Generally speaking, once you get a criminal conviction, the civil matter is all wrapped up with a pretty bow on top except to establish damages.  This is a wrongful-death case, but with a twist.  Casto wasn’t the murderer and didn’t know  the murderer.  The claim is that he set into motion certain circumstances that resulted in the murder.  To wit:

4. Casto had a sexual relationship with the deceased, Stacie Smith.
5. Casto purchased her lavish gifts in return for sexual favors.
6. Casto then got the deceased, Stacie Smith, addicted to prescription drugs.
7. Casto then forced Smith to sell these drugs on “the street,” placing her in danger.
8. Casto knew, or should have known, that forcing Smith to sell drugs illegally was dangerous and could lead to injury or death.
9. On or about December 28, 2009, Casto forced Smith to complete a drug sale.  At the sale she was confronted and murdered.

Let’s take this apart.  It’s not the classic criminal case where someone puts another in harm’s way.  For example, assume Abigail knows that Baxter wants to kill Chester.  Abigail arranges what she describes as a desired sexual encounter with Chester.  Chester, expecting pleasure, shows up at the remote location told to him by Abigail.  Chester instead get pain as Baxter pummels him into the ground with a tire iron.  Abigail was instrumental in locating Chester where his brains were forcibly removed from his cranial cavity.  She goes down as an Accessory to Murder, punishable equally to Baxter who actually committed the murder. Read more on Accomplice Liability here.

What lacks in this case from a criminal perspective is mens rea.  Criminal law is getting a little cranky with drug dealers whose product causes an overdose death – here’s an example – and that is a stretch of historical mens rea, but the Casto situation is not that.  The allegation is that he somehow forced her to sell pills, and that selling pills could be a dangerous proposition, and that the danger was realized when she was murdered.  That’s rather attenuated for attaching criminal culpability.  Ergo, the civil suit is filed.

So I happily march off to do some research on Stacie’s murder.  I found two articles that are presented with several updates each.  Read this article first – from the bottom to the top (it’s presented in reverse chron) and then this article in the same fashion.

Hunh.  See what I mean?  Let me grab some pertinent information:

Officers say a man found his daughter, 32-year-old Stacie Smith, dead inside her home in the 200-block of Carson Street Monday afternoon. He went to check on her because he had not heard from her. She had only lived there for about a week.

I assumed, wrongfully I guess, that Casto had her doing sales on the street.  The complaint states that clearly.  Yet on the day in question, the complaint merely says that he “forced Smith to complete a drug sale.”  I guess he could have forced her to do it at her home.  It seems that her dad found her about two days after her murder, and that her 3-year son was there the whole time.  Yikes.

Next we learn this:

29-year-old Timothy Sutherland of Nitro was arrested on charges of failing to register as a sex offender in Putnam County. Police say he is not a suspect; they just wanted to talk to him about what he may know about Smith’s murder.

Now, here’s a spoiler for you (learned from the second article) – Mr. Sutherland was her cousin – and murderer.  That complicates things a bit for the civil complaint.  I got the feeling from the complaint that she’s out selling drugs to anyone that’ll buy so she can rush back and hump Casto until the rooster crows.  Instead, she’s in her home with a family member.

And now we’ll jump to the confession (I sure do despise it when clients confess – just ain’t right):

“I know I’m a junkie,” Sutherland said in the confession to investigators. “My family knows I am a junkie. That’s why my family has nothing to do with me hardly, and then she calls me a junkie.”

Sutherland admits an argument with his cousin, Stacie Smith, led to her murder.

“It hurt, I stomped out of the room,” Sutherland said. “I got a butcher knife.”

Sutherland was staying with Stacie and her fiance, Brent Michels, when he stabbed her in her own bed.

“I freaked out after I stabbed her,” Sutherland said. Investigators then asked where he stabbed her. He pointed and said, “The top of her chest.”

Wait, what?  Her cousin was living there with Stacie and her fiance?  They argued over semantics and he stabbed her?  She was in her bed? Where’s the selling drugs on “the street” and dangerous situations?  How does the sex and gifts fit in with the engagement?

More from the fiance:

“I just can’t believe anyone could do that to anyone, much less their cousin, someone who took care of them, tried to help him guide him, financially helped him as much as we could, both of us did,” Michels says.

Michels says he and Stacie were trying to help Sutherland get back on his feet after just getting out of prison for sexual assault.

“The family was trying to give him a chance and asked us to take him under our wing,” Michels says.

Oh my.  It seems that Stacie was living a relatively normal life, and was supporting a loser cousin as best she could.

I am troubled, however, by one loose end – the two-day lag. I believe I am reading that the fiance lived with her.  Then why did it take two days to find her body?  From these articles we also learn that she had two kids, and that the search for her commenced when she didn’t pick up the second kid as planned – they searched after two days?  Back to our story …

So, mom, as personal representative of your murdered daughter’s estate, tell me exactly where Dr. Casto fits into this scene.  You out (accurately or not – I have no way of knowing) your daughter as a skank.  You blame her alleged script addiction on a 3d party.  Then you blame that 3d party for a family squabble that resulted in death.   And just for good measure, in the process, you set up the doctor for review by his licensing board and maybe the DA.

I sure hope you have something more than your complaint alleges because I walk away with just one conclusion:  The doctor has deeper pockets than anyone else within spitting distance of your loss.

Sad to write, but too often civil suits are best understood when you follow the money.

I sure hope this one is different.  We’ll find out when a ruling is issued on the not-yet filed Motion for Summary Judgment.

Post-Script.  And thinking of things with which I don’t know what to do, I’ve mulled this case over for days.  While somewhat interesting, I guess I’ve been trying to force it somewhere it can’t go.  I’ll just share the tidbit that humored me.

The Royal Canadian Mounted Police, it seems, have a “zero horseplay policy.”  OK, then.  I hope that works out for them.  Seems important.

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About Clyde

Clyde is the lead attorney in the firm. Licensed to practice in 1993, he's also taught Constitutional and Criminal Law for several years at a private university, primarily at the Master's level.

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