Norm Pattis ()
I am generally uncomfortable when a client, or a client’s family, decides to attend appellate arguments in the state or federal courts. So much is generally at stake, and the nature of the public proceedings are so opaque, that trying to explain the significance of what is happening is almost impossible. So when Donna Bello’s husband told me he was planning to attend the bond argument in Manhattan the other day, I was surprised at how happy I was to see him.
Joel Schiavone is 77-years-old, and his wife, Donna Bello, was sentenced to a six- year term of imprisonment for her role in something called “gifting tables.” In the United States government’s eyes, the tables were little more than a pyramid scheme. In the eyes of the hundreds of women in the state, they were much more – scores of women testified at trial that the gatherings that were part of the gifting tables process were also a place where they found companionship and support.
Donna Bello and Jill Platt were sentenced to six years and four-and-a-half years in prison, respectively, a sentence that still sends shockwaves through the defense bar in Connecticut. They are grandmothers without criminal convictions sentenced to long prison terms. We asked for bonds pending appeal. Denied, said the judge, and the women were sent packing to Alderson, W.Va.
It takes a day to get there, no matter whether you fly, drive or take the train. Alderson is well off the beaten track. I went there once, with Joel, to see Donna. It felt like a foreign country, a place where border guards made sure you left hope behind as you entered.
I had represented Donna at trial and was surprised when she and Joel asked me to stay on for the appeal. Generally, folks are none too happy with you if a trial breaks against you. I’d referred them to the state’s top appellate lawyers, but they came back to me. Their confidence in me surprised me.
Ms. Platt did find new counsel, Alexandra Shapiro, a former clerk to U.S. Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsberg. Shapiro runs a hot-shot practice in New York City. I was to be the beneficiary of the talents of a woman far smarter than I am.
We briefed a boatload of issues and submitted our papers. Then we decided to make a run at bond pending appeal, this time asking the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit to do what the district court judge would not: set our clients free until such time as the appellate court could decide whether the trial of Bello and Platt represents a miscarriage of justice. The odds of success, I told Joel, were remote, but it did not hurt to try.
Argument went well in New York. The judicial panel was active and had lots of questions, and plenty of those questions were pointedly put to the government. We left the courthouse with guarded hope. I sat with Joel and explained what I thought had occurred. He was disconsolate. His wife was still sitting a day away.
The next morning, just as I was to begin evidence presentation in another matter, a text arrived from my office: Donna was ordered released on bond. I was stunned. I stepped to the hall to call Joel and to break the news.
He sobbed with relief and the pent up frustration of a man who was regarded as nothing but collateral damage when his wife was sentenced. He left immediately to go to West Virginia to retrieve his wife from her jailers.
It was the third time I’d heard or seen the man weep. The first two times were as the verdict was returned and when Donna was sentenced. Somehow those tears have become a source of almost sacred rage, reminding me of the futility the criminal justice system spawns in the name of justice.
I don’t know whether we will win Donna’s appeal. The appellate court seems to think we’ve raised substantial questions. That’s victory enough for today. •