Annapolis lawyer guilty of shoplifting painkiller

Attorney plans appeal, saying incident at store in July was accident

April 06, 2001|By Laura Cadiz | Laura Cadiz,SUN STAFF

A well-known Annapolis lawyer was found guilty yesterday of shoplifting an $11.29 bottle of pain reliever from Sam's Club - potentially putting his career in jeopardy.

M. Willson Offutt IV, 50, was convicted of misdemeanor theft and sentenced to pay $500 in District Court for stealing a bottle of Aleve from the store outside Annapolis on July 10.

Offutt, whose law practice is in financing and related fields, was acquitted of a second-degree assault charge stemming from allegations that he tried to hit a security guard with his shopping cart after he was stopped at the store's door.

William C. Mulford II, Offutt's attorney, said he plans to file an appeal today. He had argued that the incident was an accident and that Offutt did not realize he had not paid for the Aleve.

"Hopefully a circuit court jury will see it differently," Mulford said.

Melvin Hirshman, bar counsel for the Attorney Grievance Commission, said yesterday that the commission would wait to look at the case until the appeal is decided. He said earlier that if Offutt were convicted, he would be subject to punishment ranging from a private reprimand to disbarment.

The case hinged on the written directions in the Aleve box. Offutt maintained that he had taken the directions out of the box to read them and that the insert was later found in his shopping cart. However, the directions lodged in the bottom of the Aleve box presented as state's evidence appeared to have never been unfolded.

District Judge Vincent A. Mulieri said he was leaning toward believing that Offutt forgot to pay for the pain reliever because he had taken a painkiller earlier that day for an arm injury. But the discrepancy about the insert inside the box convinced him otherwise.

"No one could have guessed at that time the importance of the insert," Mulieri said. "I have difficulty with the proposition that the insert that was involved in this case was then found in the cart."

Assistant State's Attorney Michelle Lapides said the state entered the insert as evidence and did not think it would be an issue.

Mulieri said he did not convict Offutt of the assault charge because it was not clear whether the security guard, Adam Zaharna, was hit by the shopping cart because he stepped in front of it while Offutt was pushing it or whether Offutt had tried to ram him.

During the three-day trial, Offutt had said he opened the box and took out the directions to see whether he could take the medicine. He discarded the box and went to the checkout line to buy three cases of water and two cases of Gatorade. The bottle made its way into his red duffel bag, and he started to leave the store.

During closing arguments yesterday, Mulford called it "ludicrous" that Offutt would attempt to shoplift after he had loaded down his cart with drinks while he was in a store where he has to show photo identification. He said Offutt had no motive to steal and that he would not intentionally conceal a bottle of Aleve in front of many people.

But Lapides argued that Offutt brought the duffel bag into the store in a "calculated effort" to steal the Aleve. She said Zaharna watched him "suspiciously surveying" the area and that he discarded the box with the bar code that would allow him to pay.

"Why didn't he just hand it to the clerk there?" Lapides asked. "Because he had no intent to pay for it."

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