Case Study: Film to document history of district's federal courts


By Tom Kirvan
Legal News

Five pivotal cases that help encapsulate the history of the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Michigan will be played out in documentary form next year in a film project spearheaded by the Court Historical Society.

The documentary, scheduled for completion sometime in the fall of 2020, is expected to be aired on WTVS, the Public Broadcasting Service station in Detroit, and will run in a timely format of 56 minutes and 56 seconds. That, of course, will serve as a symbolic salute to WTVS, which long has been known as Channel 56 in Southeastern Michigan.

“The documentary has evolved from a film focused almost entirely on the ‘Million-Dollar Courtroom’ in the federal courthouse,” said Matthew Lund, president of the Court Historical Society and a partner in the Detroit office of Pepper Hamilton. “It now has a much broader scope, focusing on five important cases in the history of the court, while also offering an overview of how the court impacts the lives of those residing in the Eastern District.”

The Million-Dollar Courtroom, which features more than 30 types of marble and is widely regarded as one of the most magnificent courtrooms in the country, will have its rightful part in the documentary, according to Lund, but the meat of the film will be filled with an overview of five cases decided between the years of 1942 to 2015. In chronological order, the cases include: United States v. Max Stephan (1942); United States v. Sinclair (1971); United States v. Narciso & Perez (1978); Robert Kearns v. Ford Motor Co. (1978-98); and DeBoer v. Snyder (2015).

“We had a committee select the cases and we believe that those five are among the most significant in terms of importance and overall scope,” said Lund, who also is president of the Detroit chapter of the Federal Bar Association. “It was challenging to narrow the number of cases to just five, but we believe these five represent some of the most impactful in the court’s history.”

The Max Stefan case revolved around a charge of treason against a Detroit tavern owner who allegedly aided and abetted a German prisoner of war, Hans Peter Krug, following his April 1942 escape from confinement in Canada.

In a trailer for the documentary, author David Gardner Chardavoyne said that the case has historical relevance “today for a number of reasons,” principally because it was the “first evidence of the war” in Detroit.

“It dealt with treason, and stories involving capital punishment or death sentences are always interesting,” said Chardavoyne, who wrote the 2012 book “The United States District Court for the Eastern District of Michigan: People, Law and Politics.”

Stefan, who served in the German army during World War I, was charged with helping Krug once he fled to Detroit, putting him on a bus to Chicago from where the former German pilot headed to Texas. Krug’s journey ended in San Antonio when he was arrested by the FBI after reportedly being turned in by a hotel clerk.

The prosecution’s star witness at Stefan’s trial, according to Chardavoyne, was surprisingly Krug himself.

“Why Krug chose to testify is a mystery,” Chardavoyne wrote in his book. “As a POW he did not have to, and he insisted on the stand that he was there to testify on behalf of Max Stephan. Perhaps he was just young, self-important, and easily flattered by the FBI, or perhaps he just wanted a few more days away from the boredom, squalor, and bad food of the POW camp. Whatever his reasoning, his performance sank Max Stefan . . .”

The jury quickly convicted Stefan of treason and Judge Arthur J. Tuttle sentenced him to death by hanging at the federal prison in Milan. On July 1, 1943, just hours before Stefan was scheduled to be executed, President Franklin Delano Roosevelt commuted the sentence to life in prison, “much to the disgust of Judge Tuttle,” according to Chardavoyne.

In the Sinclair matter, U.S. District Judge Damon J. Keith was assigned the case in 1971 that involved the prosecution of White Panther members John Sinclair, Larry “Pun” Plamondon, and John Forrest for conspiracy to destroy government property. Plamondon also was charged with bombing an office of the Central Intelligence Agency in Ann Arbor.

In response to a pre-trial motion by the defense, Judge Keith ordered the government to disclose all electronic surveillance information that it had obtained during wiretapping of the defendants. The government appealed the order, filing a petition for a writ of mandamus, asking the U.S. Court of Appeals to set aside the ruling. The appeal was denied in a 2-1 decision by the Sixth Circuit.

In what would become known as the “Keith Case,” the U.S. Supreme Court upheld the rulings of the lower courts, affirming them by an 8-0 vote. Justice Lewis Powell wrote the majority opinion, contending that, “We cannot accept the Government’s argument that internal security matters are too subtle and complex for judicial evaluation,” praising Keith for staunchly defending individual liberties by prohibiting the federal government from conducting electronic surveillance without a court order.

The Narciso & Perez case drew national as well as international attention following the mysterious deaths of 10 patients in 1975 at the Veterans Administration Hospital in Ann Arbor.

Following an extensive FBI investigation, Filipino nurses Leonora Perez and Filipina Narciso were charged with murder, allegedly causing the deaths of the patients by poisoning them through unauthorized IV injections. Both defendants were recent immigrants to the U.S., and the trial became a flash point for accusations of racism.

After a four-month trial and nearly two weeks of jury deliberation, the two nurses were acquitted in 1978 of the murder charge, but both were found guilty of three counts of poisoning and conspiracy to commit poisoning. Months later, the verdicts were set aside by U.S. District Judge Philip Pratt, who ruled that prosecution had withheld information from the defense and had made a series of prejudicial statements during the trial.

The government declined to retry Perez and Narciso, who had been released from prison by order of Judge Pratt.

The Kearns case, a David and Goliath type of story, pitted a onetime Wayne State University engineering professor against two of Detroit’s Big Three automakers.

Kearns reportedly received patents in 1967 for inventing the intermittent wiper, eventually suing Ford Motor Co. in 1978 and Chrysler Corp. in 1982 for patent infringement.

In 1990, a federal jury found in favor of Kearns in the suit against Ford, which eventually agreed to pay $10.2 million. Chrysler also was found liable of patent infringement and was ordered to pay $18.7 million plus interest.

U.S. District Judge Avern Cohn presided over several of the trials. The cases against the auto companies were brought to the silver screen in the 2008 movie, “Flash of Genius,” a critically acclaimed film featuring Academy Award nominee Greg Kinnear and Emmy Award winner Alan Alda.

The DeBoer v. Snyder case was based on a lawsuit filed by April DeBoer and Jane Rowse in 2012, challenging Michigan’s ban on adoption by same-sex couples. The case, heard by U.S. District Judge Bernard Friedman, was amended to challenge the state’s ban on same-sex marriage.

Dana Nessel, now Michigan’s attorney general, was among the attorneys representing the plaintiffs in the DeBoer case. She is prominently featured in the trailer to the documentary, setting the stage for a case that eventually would be decided by the U.S. Supreme Court in June 2015.

But before it could wind its way to the high court, the case was ruled upon by Friedman, who found that the state’s same-sex marriage ban violated the equal protection clause of the Fourteenth Amendment. His decision was appealed to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit, which reversed Friedman’s ruling by a 2-1 vote on November 6, 2014.

The Supreme Court consolidated the case with several others, holding in a 5-4 decision that same-sex marriages are legal in all states. Several months later, in August 2015, Friedman would preside over the marriage of DeBoer and Rowse, a ceremony attended by the couple’s four children.

Historical Society seeks funding help for project

Producing a documentary comes at a cost, in this case a $70,000 one that the U.S. District Court Historical Society hopes to defray through fund-raising efforts for the film on the Eastern District of Michigan’s five federal courts.

“We’re approximately halfway toward our goal of raising the necessary funds to complete the documentary,” said Matthew Lund, head of the Court Historical Society. “We’ve received important contributions from the U.S. District Court, the State Bar Foundation, the Michigan Humanities Council, the Court Historical Society itself, and various individuals. We’re hoping to raise the rest of the funds through various foundations, law firms in the Eastern District, and others connected to the federal courts.”

The documentary is being produced by Capture Communications, a Detroit area firm, and is scheduled for release in the fall of next year, according to Court Historian Judy Christie, who over the years has compiled oral history reflections from more than a dozen U.S. District Court judges.

“We’re all excited about the documentary project, and we expect to be able to use the film in a variety of ways – on our website, on our kiosk, and at programs in schools throughout the community,” said Christie. “It will be an important tool for us to use in educating the public about the federal courts.”

For those who would like to donate to the film project, tax-deductible contributions can be made to the Historical Society for the U.S. District Court, Theodore Levin U.S. Courthouse, 231 West Lafayette, Detroit, MI 48226.

— By Tom Kirvan


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