Delaware Today magazine: Tales From the Court, strange, bizarre cases from Delaware courtrooms
Delaware has hosted some of the most scandalous and salacious legal cases in the country. From Tom Capano to a pedophilic pediatrician, the state has had more than its share of headline-stealing court battles. While those tales garner most of the ink, the First State has featured a variety of other interesting litigations. Funny, embarrassing, intriguing or just plain odd, the following are some of the most interesting cases to grace the dockets in the past few years.
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Go back to Oct. 12, 2007, when gas was $2.77 a gallon, a $20 bill bought two movie tickets and a box of candy. Now picture a white theater manager who makes a room full of African-American moviegoers feel like second-class citizens.
It was opening night of “Why Did I Get Married?” starring Janet Jackson and Jill Scott. Hundreds gathered at Carmike Cinemas in Dover, eager to see Tyler Perry’s newest flick. At the time, Perry’s movies drew a predominantly middle-aged African-American audience, and this one was no exception. Carmike dedicated three of its 14 screens to airing the movie, with the largest room at the cinema—a 130-seat arena—selling out well before screening time.
The capacity crowd was watching patiently the previews that informed them about movie etiquette and snack bar options, when manager David Stewart entered the largest theater. He made his way to the front and reminded the audience members to turn off their phones, refrain from talking during the movie, and to not get up and walk around after the movie commenced. Then he left.
A murmur built slowly until the noise in the theater was almost deafening, recalls William McCulley, who attended the showing with his wife, Sonji.
“Everyone looked around and was shocked,” he recalls. “This never happens at any other movie. Why would he need to tell us to be quiet? I had been going to movies in the area for years and I had never seen anything like it. I never felt like that before.”
News quickly reached Stewart about how his speech was taken, and he returned to the theater to apologize. He even stood outside the exit of the theater after the movie finished, shaking everyone’s hands and wishing them a good night. That didn’t change much. The crowd was still upset. A white man asked a group of middle-aged African-Americans to behave themselves. The damage was done.
A few minutes after Stewart left the theater, Juana Fuentes-Bowles, then-director of the Delaware Human Relations Division, who was in the audience, asked people to provide their information if they felt offended and she would contact them. McCulley, his wife, and 21 others signed on and filed a complaint with the State Human Relations Committee, arguing that the incident violated civil rights laws and created a situation that was discriminatory based on race.
The State Human Relations Committee agreed with the opinion and awarded damages of $1,500 per person to those who filed the complaint, as well as about $20,000 in other fees to be paid by the theater chain.
In an appeal, Stewart and Carmike argued that addresses like the one given had been made the week before to a predominantly white audience gathered to view “Halloween,” but there were no other instances on record when this occurred. At the time, there was no written policy dictating whether managers would address audiences, or whether they would allow the pre-movie trailers do the work for them.
On July 6, 2010, the Superior Court overturned the committee’s ruling, stating that the verbal reminder might have been unneeded, but that the theater and Stewart were not violating civil rights. The courts decided that the speech was directed at the entire theater-going crowd, regardless of skin color. That ruling was upheld Feb. 17, 2011, in the Delaware Supreme Court.
The final decision was a painful blow to William McCulley, but not an unexpected one. The ruling changed. His feelings haven’t.
“It’s just kind of crazy. That stuff just doesn’t happen,” he says, adding that was the only movie he has attended that featured a personal courtesy reminder.
“I’m sure [Stewart] felt uncomfortable addressing us—he seemed it,” says McCulley. “But you could tell he knew he was wrong. Why else would he be waiting outside the doors and shaking everyone’s hands?”
Stewart has since moved back to the Olean Carmike Theater, about an hour south of Buffalo, N.Y. He’s still employed by the company and won’t comment further.
case 3: Funeral Fit for a King