Tuesday, November 10, 2009

The Lisa Nowak Media Frenzy

I think the general consensus after today's hearing is that all parties concerned are glad it's over. The victim, the judge, reporters, and most especially, the defendant. The saga that began with Lisa Nowak's arrest on February 5, 2007 ended with a packed courtroom and a sentence of 1 year probation nearly 3 years after the offense.

As we waited outside the courtroom, not even the prosecutors nor the defendant could gain entry until the appointed time. Nowak had to retreat to a private waiting area while the cameras followed her like a cat stalks its prey. I couldn't imagine having that much attention focused on me and I felt a measure of sympathy for her in that moment.

I sat smushed between two reporters and directly behind Colleen Shipman, feeling a bit like a media vulture myself. Originally charged with Burglary of a Dwelling with Assault or Battery, Attempted Kidnapping with Intent to Inflict Harm/Terror with a Weapon, and Battery, the defendant pled to the lesser included offense of Burglary of a Conveyance (5 year maximum penalty) and the misdemeanor Battery (1 year maximum). The State dropped the Attempted Kidnapping charge.

In listening to Ms. Shipman recount Ms. Nowak's behavior - I was perplexed as to why the State did not charge Aggravated Stalking (which carries a possible 5 year penalty). The facts of the case certainly seemed to support such a charge. The victim testified about her fear that Nowak intended to kill her in the parking lot. Nowak had thoroughly researched murder, corpse dismemberment, disguises, and trace evidence prior to the offense. Several weeks before that night at the airport, Nowak entered Astronaut William Oelefein's apartment without his permission, stole Shipman's personal information (address, phone, email) as well as her travel itinerary. She assembled a number of items to be used as weapons in confronting Shipman. Nowak drove to Florida, paid cash along the way, used an assumed name and wore a disguise in order to avoid having a record of her presence here. She followed the victim for several hours while at the airport and subsequently tracked her to her car. The victim, who prior to the incident had never met Nowak, thought she was going to be killed or carjacked.

Sounds like stalking to me.

Defense Counsel Donald Lykkebak asked Judge Marc Lubet to treat his client just like anyone else who pled to the identical offenses (Burglary of Conveyance + Battery). I would have to say the Judge Lubet did exactly that. This was a first offense, and judges routinely withhold adjudication on first offenses. I must state that it's a sad commentary that our system allows one "freebie" in terms of one's record for a felony conviction. A misdemeanor maybe. But if you plead to a felony there ought to be a criminal record.  Nowak was initially charged with Attempted Murder, although the State declined to proceed on that charge - likely because Nowak's pre-Miranda statements and some evidence were suppressed as a result of police misconduct.

Assistant State Attorney Pam Davis emphatically argued that this is not like your usual Burglary of a Conveyance case and recounted Nowak's numerous stalking behaviors. I agree. So why did the State agree to the plea? I ask again, why wasn't she charged with Aggravated Stalking?

In addition to 1 year's probation, the judge sentenced Nowak to 50 hours of community service. She is permitted to "buy out" her hours at the rate of $10/hour. As a side note, CourtWatch believes this practice unfairly benefits defendants who have the financial resources to avoid having to actually do community service and would like to see the practice eliminated.

She was ordered to have no contact with either Shipman or Oelefein, to write a sincere letter of apology, pay restitution, and to complete an 8-hour anger management course. She is permitted to transfer probation to Texas and must obtain the consent of her probation officer prior to traveling.

Judge Lubet commented that he has no sympathy whatsoever about the impact this case has on her Naval career and retirement, stating "You've brought this all on yourself."

To the best of my knowledge, the man at the center of all this, Bill Oelefein, has never been called upon to testify in open court.

In addition to the apology letter to Shipman, Ms. Nowak ought to consider sending a thank you note to the OPD for botching the case.

Both parties have paid a high price for Nowak's assault. Now that they no longer have the spectre of this case hanging over their heads, I hope the media leaves them alone to heal and get on with their lives.

To watch the complete hearing, click here.

Sentinel photo gallery
Case Synopsis

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