Lives Overturned

Darlene and Jerry Span have suffered so, I am reluctant to write optimistically about them. I fear that if I mention the one uncontestably good thing that has happened to the Spans in the past few years, I will anger the gods of legal minutia, who might then rain dozens of new plagues and prosecutions on the family.

These siblings and their kin have had sorrows visited upon them for a very long time now.

The Spans were not always fodder for official abuse. The family has been a part of Arizona for more than 30 years. You might know them as the kids who sold you hot dogs at sporting events or Christmas trees from a lot on Buckeye Road near 19th Street. The Spans also ran a demolition and salvage company that, by the late 1980s, had turned their property into a pack rat's treasure trove. This large family was as close and hardworking and salt-of-the-earth as they come.

Then, on April 7, 1988, the official bludgeoning of the Spans began.
On that day, two federal marshals, David Dains and Mickey Grotewold, went first to the home of the 74-year-old family patriarch, Bill. The Spans claim the marshals roughed up the old man; the marshals have denied touching him.

Then the marshals went to the Span-family business, seeking a fugitive, one Mickey Michael. The Spans had a 39-year-old brother of that name, but he was clearly not the 63-year-old fugitive the marshals sought.

There are two wildly divergent accounts of what happened next, but Darlene and Jerry wound up being charged with the federal equivalent of resisting arrest--a felony.

At the 1990 trial, the marshals claimed the Spans viciously attacked them. The marshals testified Darlene Span attacked Dains from behind, injuring his knee and clawing his face, and then hit Grotewold in the chest. By the marshals' testimony, Jerry Span--all five feet, five inches and 118 pounds of him--went after the 200-plus-pound Grotewold and tried to grab his gun.

Anyone who knows Darlene Span, or much about her family, might question the memories of these poor, put-upon marshals. But you wouldn't need any special knowledge of the Spans to wonder about the marshals' claims.

Two defense witnesses---customers at the Span business who did not know the family personally--testified that these marshals were . . . well, astonishing liars. The defense witnesses contend the marshals showed Darlene and Jerry a flier about the missing fugitive; the Spans said they didn't know the person and began to walk away.

I'll let an appellate ruling recount what the defense witnesses said happened:

"At that point, Marshal Dains ran up to Ms. Span, grabbed her from behind by her ponytail, and threw her against the fence. They both fell to the ground, with Ms. Span trying to get Marshal Dains' hands off her hair. In the scuffle, Dains broke his glasses, which cut and scratched his face. He then dragged Ms. Span backwards, picked her up and pushed her against a car and held her in a choke hold. . . . Marshal Grotewold tackled Mr. Span from behind. 'He just come down with a karate chop to the back of his head and his knee and hit him' [a witness testified], 'and that was the end of Jerry.' Marshal Grotewold threw Mr. Span to the ground, then picked him up, threw him on the car and held him in a choke hold until the local police arrived."

Now, two unaffiliated eyewitnesses, both willing to testify that federal marshals had trounced two defenseless citizens for no good reason, would seem to be a boon to any defense lawyer. And the Spans did not hire just any defense lawyer--they retained Oscar Goodman, a Las Vegas legal wonder who is renowned for defending people sometimes described as "mobsters." Goodman is such a Vegas fixture that he was allowed to play himself in the film Casino.

Although Goodman has been the subject of news reports from coast to coast, one of the better descriptions of him comes out of the weekly Las Vegas New Times (no connection to this paper). The Vegas weekly ran a competition in which Goodman was chosen as Best Criminal Lawyer.

"Smart choice," the paper commented. "You might not like him getting mobsters acquitted, but if you were looking at going to jail for a very long time, Oscar is the guy you'd want at your table."

Darlene Span said she and her brother paid Goodman $50,000 to handle their case, and he promised them a first-class defense.

"He was not going to leave any rock unturned, he was going to take the case all the way to the Supreme Court," Darlene said last week.

Of course, the hope was that the Spans' case would be resolved before the Supreme Court heard it.

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John Mecklin