In 2011, Berrien County, Michigan authorities charged 40-year-old Leeann Shantelle Thain with embezzling thousands of dollars from her mother, who lived roughly an hour’s drive away in Elkhart, Indiana.
In 2000, Thain became legal guardian of her mother, Kathleen Cavinder, after Cavinder suffered a brain aneurysm that impaired her short-term memory. Thain was accused of embezzling more than $40,000 from her mother between January 2008 and June 2009. For years, Thain drove from her home in Baroda, Michigan to Elkhart to visit her mother and take care of her mother’s finances. In early 2009, when Thain arranged for Cavinder’s mail to be sent to Thain’s home, Cavinder began complaining to her brother that Thain was spending her money. The brother then went to police.
Thain went on trial in Berrien County Circuit Court in the fall of 2011. The prosecution presented evidence that numerous purchases during 2008 and 2009 were made in Baroda with Cavinder’s credit cards, and that several checks on Cavinder’s accounts were made out to Thain’s husband. In addition, a number of checks were used to pay Thain’s mortgage.
Thain testified that her mother had given her permission to purchase certain items and to pay the mortgage because Thain and her husband were suffering from financial difficulty. While the prosecution contended that Thain switched the billing address to cover up the embezzlement, Thain testified she did so because she was trying to keep a closer watch on her mother’s profligate spending. She testified that while the credit card debt built up while she was guardian, it was hidden from her knowledge by her mother not providing the credit card statements.
Thain’s defense attorney argued that the financial records were a “bookkeeping nightmare” and that Thain had not intentionally stolen money from her mother.
On November 2, 2011, a jury convicted Thain of embezzlement and fraudulent use of a financial device. Following a restitution hearing, the trial judge sentenced Thain to spend 90 days in jail and to repay $43,614.
In December 2012, a new attorney for Thain filed a motion for a new trial claiming that Thain’s trial attorney had failed to investigate and present evidence that showed money had not been stolen. At a hearing on the motion, Thain presented evidence showing that the expenditures leading to a $14,000 credit card debt were made in Elkhart—not in Baroda where Thain lived.
Thain argued that her trial lawyer had failed to examine the records of the expenditures and contended that the evidence that Cavinder had made the purchases would have buttressed her argument that switching the billing address was not done to cover up embezzlement. Thain’s trial attorney had failed to present other financial evidence that would have showed how Thain transferred two of Cavinder’s high-interest credit card balances to a zero-interest credit card to save interest charges. These records contradicted Cavinder’s testimony that Thain opened a credit card in Cavinder’s name and promptly maxed it out.
The trial judge denied the motion for a new trial. In October 2013, the Michigan Court of Appeals reversed the conviction and restitution order and ordered a new trial.
The Court of Appeals ruled that Thain’s defense attorney had failed to conduct a proper investigation of the case, which led to a failure to develop support for the defense of the case. “Had defense counsel fully investigated…counsel could have presented evidence indicating that (Thain) in fact took steps to reduce (Cavinder’s) credit card balances” and that the bulk of Cavinder’s debt was accrued prior to the time when Thain became Cavinder’s legal guardian.
On February 3, 2014, the Berrien County Prosecuting Attorney’s Office dismissed the charges.
– Maurice Possley