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Breakfast with the devil

Paul Fletcher//February 27, 2012

Breakfast with the devil

Paul Fletcher//February 27, 2012

My tax professor at Washington & Lee, the late great Tim Philipps, had a saying for that moment when you think you have found a loophole in the federal tax code: If it sounds too good to be true, it probably is.

Earlier this month, in the debate over the “Castle Doctrine,” a delegate told a story from the floor of the House of Delegates.

The Castle Doctrine holds that a man’s home is his castle. Several measures before the General Assembly this session would give a homeowner immunity from prosecution or from civil liability if he harms someone trying to break in to his home. There are some different nuances to the bills, but that’s the nut of it.

Del. Anne Crockett-Stark, R-Wytheville, took the floor Feb. 9 to speak in favor of one of these measures.

“We need this bill,” she said, and Crockett-Stark proceeded to relate a story of an 82-year-old constituent from one of her counties in Southwest Virginia.

One night, about 2 a.m., the elderly woman heard the sound of glass breaking. She grabbed her pistol – the woman is a sharp-shooter, Crockett-Stark said, to chuckles in the crowd.

The woman caught the intruder as he was entering a window. She put the pistol to his chin, and asked him, “Do you want to eat breakfast with the devil?”

As the man ran off, she fired a shot in the air to scare him.

Here’s the “sad part,” according to the delegate. “He took her to court for shooting at him and he won!”

Her Republican colleagues applauded with delight and gave her a partial standing O. The castle doctrine measures passed the House overwhelmingly and are now with the Senate.

Back to the lady packing heat. I ran across women like her when I practiced law in Southwest Virginia. If we’re in a street fight, I want feisty ol’ gals like her on my side.

But we watch for stories like that at this newspaper. If an intruder brought a lawsuit and actually prevailed, it likely would be page-one stuff.

Lawyers would take great interest in such a case. What were the exact facts? What was the theory the winning lawyer used? What defenses? Did the lady’s homeowner’s insurance kick in?

We wanted to know more about this case. My colleague Peter Vieth and I started making phone calls across the delegate’s district, which includes all or part of three counties — Wythe, Carroll and Smyth. About 15 calls later: No one had ever heard such a tale.

We talked to the circuit clerks of all three counties. Nope. Hayden Horney, the Wythe County clerk, asked, “When did this happen?” He said he’d been in his position 27 years and had never heard of it. A bailiff in Wythe had been on the job since the late 1960s and could not recall such a case.

Jack Harris, executive director of the Virginia Trial Lawyers Association, posted a query on the VTLA listserv, trolling for information; several hundred plaintiff’s lawyers are members. Nothing.

Vieth finally got a sort-of response from Del. Crockett-Stark’s office. Her legislative aide, John Matthews, said the delegate does not know specifics. Matthews added, “She does not have any information to share with us. She was told the story by the lady, who has cancer.

“That’s all there is,” Matthews said.

So we can’t say this story isn’t true or there isn’t a pistol-packing senior citizen out in Southwest Virginia. We can say we tried to get independent confirmation of this tale and further information and we could not do so. As any good lawyer will tell you, it’s hard to prove a negative.

Let me simply send out this call: If anyone knows anything more about this lawsuit by the intruder, please let us know.

We’re not the only ones interested. One of the clerks asked that I call back if I got additional details. “I’d like to know about that one,” the clerk said. “That’s a good story.”

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