Divorce violence and crime does not just happen among spouses. It can also be perpetrated against the divorce lawyers as well.
Defendant Michael Peterson has been convicted of a second murder stemming from his divorce according to media reports. Last year he apparently gunned down his wife during a protracted divorce and while he was at it he also took out his divorce lawyer as well. He received two murder convictions and two life sentences for his troubles.
Apparently the guy felt he had gotten the shaft in his divorce and he went ballistic.
His lawyer addresed the court during his sentencing for the lawyer’s murder:
Pickens told Buffalo County Judge John Icenogle that Petersen is a good man that had reached his breaking point and was “done getting screwed over.”
Showing no remorse, Petersen himself told the judge the justice system is not fair. He spoke quickly as he launched into a speech about premarital versus marital asset paperwork and the professional negligence of his victim. Petersen did not speak about the shootings.
Petersen had filed several grievances and appeals against Elsbernd, but all were dismissed.
“None of those will ever be reasons to take a human life in such a cowardly fashion,” Hall County Attorney Mark Young told the judge.
Young described how Petersen picked a hunting rifle from his extensive weapons collection before killing Nancy Petersen in Kearney. Young said Petersen then drove home to switch vehicles before driving to Grand Island to wait for Elsbernd to get off work. The 52-year-old attorney was shot outside his law firm in downtown G.I. on November 13, 2013.
How Can Lawyers Protect Themselves in This Type of Situation?
The burning question obviously is how can lawyers protect themselves in these types of situations. It is hard to say. Domestic violence is obviously a big issue and problem and while it is inexcusable, it still is a different scenario when the lawyers get caught up in the crossfires. The lawyer has no history with these people. The lawyer was not in this marriage. The lawyer is a bystander who was commissioned by one of the parties to provide legal representation. But too often, the parties seem to think the lawyers are a part of their marital squabbles. Actually, some go as far as to blame the lawyer for the divorce and in extreme cases (which are occurring frankly too often) they murder the lawyer as well as their spouse. What can lawyers do about this? How can lawyers spot potential troublemakers before getting in the middle of the mess? This is the question.
One key indicator that a case might be more trouble than its worth is when it is “high conflict.” That means the parties fight over every detail and they fight for a really long time. Another is when a client comes to the office having had several attorneys withdraw from their case. These are not always indicators. These factors can be present with no violence. But an attorney has to be willing to weigh the pros and cons before getting involved. In this particular case, it was a high conflict situation and there had been a bunch of lawyers withdrawing from the case. Here is the backstory shared by another attorney about this case. Lawyers should take note:
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A 52 year old father of three was shot in the back with a high velocity rifle in the parking lot near his downtown office at 6:31 p.m. on a Wednesday. He was a divorce lawyer, and the shooter was his former client.
Nancy Petersen filed for divorce from her husband, Michael, in 2002. There were the usual requests for temporary financial support and financial documents. There were depositions, affidavits, exhibits, and witness lists.
There were also all of the signs of high conflict. Multiple allegations of contempt. An appointment of a professional to protect the best interests of their child. One attorney after another withdrawing.
It was over two years before the divorce decree was entered. An appeal followed. Three years after the first court filing, the Petersens were still in court over disputes.
Grand Island, Nebraska was shocked by this shooting by the man whose home was a concrete bunker with more than a dozen guns and a dozen boxes of bullets. The town was even more shocked when the morning after attorney Todd Elsbernd was gunned down, the body of Nancy Petersen was found dead in her home in rural BuffaloCounty.
Michael Petersen is being held without bond on two counts of first degree murder.
As divorce lawyers, we often hear other attorneys say, “I don’t know how you do it. I could never do what you do.”
They’re right. Being a divorce attorney is not for the faint of heart. But for those who have a courageous and compassionate heart.
Each day we call forth our courage to have truthful conversations with our clients about everything from what is impossible under the law to how their emails to their spouses are hurting their case. We face bullying tactics by other attorneys, take zealous stands for what our clients need, and realize that we are at risk for being blamed despite doing our best.
Each day we live in our compassionate hearts. We know that no one wants a divorce, although they may need it. We understand that the journey of divorce is difficult. We recognize that if we resort to cynicism in how we view our work that we will no longer be able to gently pull a tissue from the box for the man who weeps on the other side of our desk as he tells the story of his broken spirit.
People who knew him describe Todd Elsbernd as a great dad and a loving husband. He included divorce in his law practice despite his expertise in other areas. Surely it was his courageous and compassionate heart that made this possible. May his fellow divorce attorneys carry his spirit onward.
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