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The best -- and worst -- in legal news for 2006

By Kendall Coffey
Special to CNN
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MIAMI, Florida (CNN) -- Miami lawyer Kendall Coffey, a former U.S. attorney and frequent CNN guest analyst, takes a wry look at the best and worst the legal world had to offer in 2006.


Reason not to send instant messages: Mark Foley

Along with probably costing Republicans votes, former Florida Rep. Mark Foley's e-mails to minors launched preliminary police inquiries that Florida authorities recently upgraded to an active criminal investigation.

His defense strategy appears to be, at least in its early stages, that any cyber-lewdness never crossed the line to active solicitation of minors. But under some state laws, including Florida's, lewd e-mails to underage recipients may be a crime even if the adult sender only looked and never touched.

And in contrast to a "he said" and "she said" dispute, computer crimes largely rely on a much less debatable issue of what "e-mail said."

Reason not to publish a book: O.J. Simpson

Just when it seemed safe to forget about O.J., he reappeared with an appalling book deal for "If I Did It," the confession that wasn't really a confession.

The literary world and crime-victim advocates joined in collective sighs of relief after the deal was canceled amid public outcry. Even the executive who signed O.J. subsequently separated from the publisher. Meanwhile, the $40 million wrongful death judgment against O.J. remains largely uncollectible because of asset protection laws that make Florida a debtor's paradise.

But Fred Goldman, the father of one of the people O.J. was accused of killing, never gives up. He has filed suit claiming rights to O.J.'s $1.1 million advance.

Deal for both sides: Rush vs. Palm Beach prosecutors

After 2 years of hard-fought litigation over access to medical records, conservative commentator Rush Limbaugh and Palm Beach, Florida, prosecutors finally called it quits. Both sides agreed to a single charge of doctor-shopping that will be dropped after 18 months of drug treatment for Limbaugh.

For the prosecutors, it's a small victory for using search warrants to secure medical records without violating patient privacy rights. For Limbaugh, the agreement resolves an extensive investigation of alleged prescription drug abuse without admission to a crime.

Response to a suicidal defendant: Zacarias Moussaoui

Zacarias Moussaoui, once thought to be the 20th 9/11 hijacker, is the worst kind of 9/11 wannabe. Having failed in his original goal of killing Americans through a suicide mission, he did everything possible to embarrass our legal system through outrageous outbursts during his federal terrorism case.

He pleaded guilty, then took the stand to trash-talk America and spew contempt toward 9/11 victims. His perverse pursuit of a supposed martyr's death was defeated, though, when a jury imposed the last thing he wanted -- a life sentence in a maximum security prison where his 15 minutes of infamy will be quickly forgotten over decades of bleak and unending irrelevancy.

Reason to keep on swinging: Barry Bonds

The second-most prolific home-run hitter in baseball history was almost tagged by a San Francisco, California, grand jury examining possible federal charges. So far, Barry Bonds is safe, but he hasn't made it home yet. The long-running investigation into steroid use is still focusing on whether Bonds committed perjury when he denied during his 2003 grand jury testimony that he knowingly used steroids. An ex-girlfriend has allegedly turned on Bonds. At least as a Giant, Bonds would remain a local sports hero in the investigation's venue. And if indicted, he could still hope for a jury of fans.


Impersonation of a child killer: John Mark Karr

John Mark Karr created a sensation last summer when he suggested he had killed 6-year-old beauty queen JonBenet Ramsey. Authorities flew Karr business class to the United States. Ultimately, though, the charges against Karr were wiped away when DNA evidence didn't match. Even his previous California arrest on charges of possession of child pornography cratered after authorities lost data on Karr's computer. So while America's most notorious fake murderer is back on the street, police are no closer than before to solving JonBenet's 1996 slaying.

Impersonation of a family man: Warren Jeffs

Snagged during a routine traffic stop in Nevada, polygamist leader Warren Jeffs had reached the FBI's most wanted fugitive list during 14 months on the lam. The self-proclaimed prophet, seer and revelator of his Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints has dozens of wives and scores of children. He now faces felony charges in Arizona as well as in Utah for arranging illegal sex with minors. The Utah trial is set for April, and his defense may insist that any marriages arranged by Jeffs with underage brides were sanctified by the church's prophet -- namely, Warren Jeffs.

Hard landing for high-flying executives: Jeffrey Skilling and Kenneth Lay

After years at the pinnacle of corporate power and prestige, former Enron executives Jeffrey Skilling and Kenneth Lay were found guilty by a Houston, Texas, jury of numerous charges of white collar fraud. Although Skilling's sentence of more than 24 years in federal prison would have seemed the harshest conceivable result, the five-year ordeal of Enron's collapse and scandal ended for Lay when he died in July. Skilling is appealing his convictions, while Lay's have been erased because his death eliminated any chance to appeal. For the Enron employees and investors who lost so much, nothing will replace the lost paychecks, pensions and savings shattered in the wake of the most notorious corporate scandal in decades.

Exercise of the right to remain silent: Mel Gibson

Traffic safety advocates shudder when mega-celebrities like actor-director Mel Gibson are clocked at 87 mph while under the influence of alcohol. But Mad Mel's pre-dawn race down Malibu, California's Pacific Coast Highway took him from scary wheels to scary words with his anti-Semitic and sexist rants to the arresting officers. Predictably, the salvage operation for a self-imploded reputation included the now-standard protocol of public apology and private treatment. While the DUI charges have been resolved, one thing that may not arrive alive is Gibson's exalted status on the Celebrity A-List.

Defendant: Saddam Hussein

Former Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein was sentenced to death on November 5 for ordering the deaths of 148 Shiites in 1982. Unlike the United States, where the succession of death penalty appeals averages more than 11 years, Iraq completed its appellate process within weeks, rejecting Hussein's appeal on December 26. He was hanged on December 30.


Attorney and legal analyst Kendall Coffey shares his annual best and worst list.




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