Jim Kenyon: Sometimes the best defense is a good defense lawyer

Valley News Columnist
Published: 5/17/2022 10:11:00 PM
Modified: 5/17/2022 10:09:14 PM

There’s an old saying in the legal world about criminal defendants who enter a courtroom without a lawyer: He who represents himself has a fool for a client.

For Albert Bassett, a 72-year-old truck driver, it was a hard lesson learned.

Facing a misdemeanor charge of simple assault for causing “unprivileged physical contact” during an altercation with a neighbor in Grafton, Bassett opted to go it alone in Lebanon Circuit Court on Monday.

The hourlong trial ended with Judge Edward Tenney finding Bassett guilty.

“I’m not guilty of this,” Bassett told me afterward, “but I’m not smart enough to prove it.”

Bassett shouldn’t be too tough on himself.

The case didn’t belong in court.

I say that after talking with both parties, sifting through court records and sitting in on Monday’s trial. Here’s some background:

For 37 years, Bassett lived in the upstairs of a house on Orange Pond Road. In exchange for taking care of the 140-acre property, including plowing the driveway with his own truck, Bassett didn’t pay any rent.

After the owner moved into a senior housing development in 2020, the property was put up for sale.

Bassett, who hauls mail from White River Junction to Nashua for a private company, moved to Canaan. In an arrangement made with the property owner’s son, he continued to watch over the vacant house and plow the driveway for free.

Bassett also benefited. He was allowed to keep his tools and heavy equipment, including a skidder that he used as a logger before he went into trucking, on the property until it sold.

On Feb. 12, 2021, Bassett went to the house to remove some belongings. When he arrived, he found another man plowing the driveway.

Steven Gillingham, who lives nearby, testified on Monday that he’d received a call from the property owner, asking him to plow following a recent storm.

Gillingham, who is in his 30s, drove in his family’s Kubota tractor, which has an enclosed cab, to the house. Before he finished plowing, Bassett showed up.

Gillingham testified on Monday that Bassett started “screaming and said I wasn’t supposed to be there.”

Bassett stepped onto the tractor and “grabbed hold of me, trying to get me off the tractor,” Gillingham said.

Gillingham, who has a partial right arm, then struck Bassett’s forehead twice with his “right metal prosthetic hand,” according to court records. At least one blow drew blood.

After returning home, Gillingham called police. Three officers — two from Grafton and another from neighboring Canaan — responded.

The investigation showed “Bassett was the aggressor and Gillingham acted in self-defense,” Grafton officer Mitchell Briggs wrote in his affidavit. (Briggs is now a state marine patrol officer.)

Police asked Gillingham if he wanted to press charges. On Monday, he testified that he told police, “No, I want to be left alone.”

As he was leaving the courthouse, Gillingham reiterated that it wasn’t his idea to take Bassett to court. “I didn’t want to be here,” he told me.

Prosecutor Mariana Pastore also called the three investigating officers to the witness stand.

It was then Bassett’s turn to present his case. He declined, however, to testify on his own behalf. That’s all the judge needed to hear. “Guilty,” Tenney announced.

After not being given time to make a closing argument, Bassett tried to speak up. Tenney cut him off. “You chose not to testify,” the judge reminded him.

Looking back, Bassett recognized that not giving his side of the story was a mistake. “All I was doing was protecting my property,” he said, referring to his equipment he stored outside the house.

Pastore recommended that Bassett pay a fine of $750, plus court fees. (The maximum fine was $1,200.)

Jumping onto someone’s tractor and trying to pull them off “simply cannot be accepted,” Pastore told the judge.

In today’s society, people instigating physical confrontations with someone they may have a beef with is “becoming more and more of a problem,” she added.

Noting that Bassett had no previous criminal record, Tenney reduced the fine to $250. He suspended the additional $500 that Pastore had argued for, providing Bassett stay out of trouble for a year.

Since Gillingham wasn’t interested in pursing the case and didn’t suffer any injuries, I was curious why Pastore went ahead. She politely declined to comment.

I’ve run across people like Bassett all too often in New Hampshire courtrooms. The judicial system chews up individuals who are undereducated (Bassett left school after 10th grade) and unfamiliar with how courts work.

He couldn’t have a public defender because he didn’t face potential jail time.

It’s unclear whether Bassett was offered a spot in the county’s court diversion program for some first-time offenders. Bassett only recalled getting a letter from the prosecutor’s office, offering him a deal that included a $500 fine if he pleaded guilty.

That sounds about right. New Hampshire runs its courts that handle misdemeanors like a toll booth.

But it comes at a public cost. The courts are already overburdened. (Bassett waited 15 months for his trial.) I can also think of better uses of the three officers’ time than having them sit around a courthouse — on the taxpayers’ dime — for a morning.

After Bassett paid his fine, plus $60 in court fees, I asked him why he hadn’t hired a lawyer. Even if court diversion wasn’t on the table, a decent lawyer might have been able to get the charge reduced from a misdemeanor to a violation. Bassett still would have paid a fine, but avoided a criminal record.

Bassett told me that he figured a lawyer would cost him more than any fine a judge could impose.

“I guess I blew it,” he said.

He wasn’t alone.

Jim Kenyon can be reached at jkenyon@vnews.com.




Valley News

24 Interchange Drive
West Lebanon, NH 03784
603-298-8711

 

© 2021 Valley News
Terms & Conditions - Privacy Policy