Since I spend the majority of my days either writing legal briefs or reviewing those of others, I have seen my share of poorly drafted briefs. But after reading the Montana Supreme Court opinion in Montana v. Belanus, I do not believe I have ever spotted a worse example of how to open a brief.
Let me give you a little background. The facts in Belanus are not for the faint-hearted. It involves an admittedly brutal beating and an alleged rape. It also involves a serious legal question on whether the Belanus was entitled to the intoxication defense. Specifically, because the defendant was intoxicated on alcohol and drugs the question was whether he should be held responsible for his actions while intoxicated.
There are a million ways to open a brief like this and I would imagine that most attorneys would try to delicately deemphasize the facts while not giving the impression that they are trivializing them. Whatever the strategy, I doubt that anyone, this side of the looking glass, would start the brief with a quote from the movie The Hangover. And even if they did begin with a quote from that movie, I would be surprised if they chose a quote from Mike Tyson. But that is exactly what occurred.
If what counsel was aiming for was a remembered opening, that is what he got. The Montana Supreme Court opened their opinion with analysis, not of the legal issues, but of counsel’s choice of quote.
Belanus’ brief on appeal opens with an expletive-laden quote from former boxer Mike Tyson in the 2009 film The Hangover—a peculiar choice for this case, given Tyson’s conviction for raping an 18-year-old girl in Indiana in 1992, where his defense (like Belanus’ here) was that the sex was consensual. The not-so-subtle point of this Tyson quote is that people should be forgiven for outrageous acts committed while extremely intoxicated, since “we all do dumb [stuff] when we’re [messed] up”—another defense which Belanus asserted at trial and which he now, for whatever reason, believes this Court should bear in mind as we consider the legal issues raised in this appeal.
If an admonishment on the boundaries of taste and argumentation was not enough, the court continued with:
Belanus’ brief then weaves a sordid tale replete with lurid descriptions of a night of heavy drinking and drug use, physical assaults against his then-girlfriend (whom we refer to herein as “T.C.”), violent sex with her in his home, and then efforts the next morning to cover up his activities the night before. Belanus’ storytelling is needlessly graphic and offensive. And yet, at the same time, he belittles T.C. and trivializes his conduct as consensual and just the sort of “dumb [stuff]” that people do when they’re drunk. That supposedly excusable conduct included chasing T.C. when she tried to escape from Belanus during their drive to his house, dragging her back to his car by her hair, and hitting and kicking her in a fit of rage. It also included choking T.C. to the point she could not breathe and urinated in her pants, and then handcuffing and raping her by violently shoving an “anal wand” into her repeatedly, which caused her to scream in pain and defecate and bleed on the floor, all while calling her a “slut” and a “stupid bitch” and telling her she deserved it. Appellate counsel’s attempts to sugarcoat these shocking events as just one of Belanus and T.C.’s typical date nights that went “horribly awry” gives pulp fiction a bad name. His story is as delusional as it is unbelievable, and it is not surprising that the jury didn’t buy it.
I think we can all agree that this is a fine example of what not to do!