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Non-Criminal Injustice

When a 71-year-old cancer victim refused to answer a lawyer's questions, she was thrown in jail without medicine


Approaching 72 and after four bouts with cancer that qualify her as a fighter, Peg Browne never imagined where she would spend a long weekend if she didn't buckle and cough up all sorts of personal and financial information to a Tucson lawyer who is pressing a case on behalf of his wife.

She learned, on the last Friday in July, about the penalty for pissing off a Superior Court commissioner, a near-judge who was presiding over the case and arbitration decision Browne lost in December to Crosby Properties LLC in a real estate and loan deal.

Browne, a Green Valley real estate broker, was unable to make the arbitration hearing in December 2004 because of her mother's critical health problems. She arrived in Superior Court July 29 empty-handed and without counsel, and declined lawyer Jerry Laney's demands for detailed personal financial information.

Commissioner Karen Nygaard asked Browne to answer Laney's questions. Nygaard asked her to do so three more times before ordering her held in contempt of court and committing her to the custody of Sheriff Clarence Dupnik at the Pima County Jail.

Nygaard noted in her minute entry, summarizing her action and the aborted proceedings, that Browne "shall be purged from contempt and released from custody once she has answered Mr. Laney's questions and produced the requested documents to his satisfaction."

Deputies assigned to the courthouse immediately cuffed Browne and prepared her for the three-mile ride to the jail, where she would join hundreds of women awaiting trial on criminal charges or serving time for convictions of actual crimes--not in jail for balking at a lawyer's demands and a court commissioner in a civil dispute.

Browne is personable, well-spoken and matter-of-fact when it comes to getting locked up.

"I made the choice," she said in an interview. "It was my choice. She asked me four times. I'd rather face jail than to have Laney continue lying about me and lying to me."

Laney said in an interview: "Well, I've never lied to her or about her. This is a simple debt-collection lawsuit."

The jail stay was no cheap price for a woman who has battled cancers that have attacked her colon and liver. It was a risky move for someone whose cancer and other illness are exacerbated by stress.

At the jail, she was put in a cell "with another white-haired woman" and not allowed to retrieve any of her medications from her purse or a note from her doctor.

She was strapped in a chair for a time and bent backward. When she requested--as instructed--to seek a visit to the infirmary to talk to someone about medication and a diet her surgically shortened colon could take, a guard appeared, looked at her and said: "You're not dead."

"I can understand; you've got 100 women in there, and some are freaking out, so the staff has to be stern," Browne said. "But when you have a 72-year-old woman who is sick? I couldn't eat. I was in pain, and I couldn't take my medicine. The women in there manhandle you. And most of the women in there seem to have never really had much of a chance in life."

Browne was moved to a dorm setting, where eight share a room. The girls there, she said, took care of her.

Meanwhile, her son was working to get her out, and hooked up with Tucson lawyer Leon Thikoll, who spoke with Laney and backed him sufficiently to have Laney agree to have Commissioner Nygaard approve Browne's release.

Browne was dumped out of the jail with less regard than when she was admitted.

She was told on Monday, Aug. 1, to change into the clothes taken from her three days earlier. She had no money. Whatever she came in with was taken and converted into a money order. Into the sun and heat she went, with no ride and no phone call. When she went back into the building to ask for a phone call or for somebody to call her son, she was told to get moving. And no loitering outside, guards told her, lest she be re-arrested.

She finally borrowed a cell phone from a passer-by to call her son.

Dave Ricker, public information director for the Superior Court, said Nygaard was prohibited by canons of judicial ethics from speaking about pending matters. Nygaard is a former deputy county attorney and trial lawyer for DeConcini McDonald Yetwin & Lacey and was appointed to the commission bench in 1997 by then-Presiding Judge Michael Brown. She is paid $108,675 a year. Commissioners hear a variety of cases and have powers similar to judges. They serve at the pleasure of the presiding judge, rather than through gubernatorial appointments and voter retention. Their salaries are less, but unlike judges, whose pay is split by county and state governments, salaries for commissioners are fully paid by Pima County taxpayers.

Laney, 57, is carrying the water for his wife, Nance Crosby, 52, and her company, which loaned Browne $20,000 on Nov. 3, 2000, according to details in the arbitration award order issued by Tucson lawyer Nancy O'Neill on Dec. 15. The dispute arose over the conditions of the loan. The promissory note states that Browne was to pay Crosby Properties $30,000 but "without interest if paid in full on or before Dec. 3, 2000." The amount rose to $40,000 if Browne paid between Dec. 4, 2000 and March 3, 2001. "In any event, this note is all due and payable April 3, 2001," according to the promissory note.

O'Neill noted in her arbitration findings that Browne paid $37,417 on April 24, 2003. Still, O'Neill issued a finding that Browne owned $12,537, including interest at 10 percent a year.

Browne has been ordered to appear in Superior Court on Aug. 15.

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