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Big Spin: Taking Doris for a Ride

The tormenting of Doris Barnett has proceeded for three years now at the hands of the California Lottery Commission. You might think the commission would decide enough is enough and fork over the huge pile of money it owes Barnett. But no, it appears the ordeal will continue.

Barnett, you will recall, is the working mother from South-Central Los Angeles who won a $3-million jackpot at the Big Spin and then almost instantly had it taken from her. Lottery officials claimed that her ball had not remained in the winning slot for the required amount of time. She was lectured on the value of rules before a television audience and then hustled off the stage.

That’s the basics. Barnett went home, sued the Lottery Commission and won full restoration of the $3 million plus $400,000 in damages. The commission still refused to pay and filed a motion for a new trial. The motion was rejected and the commission delayed again. Its lawyers are now preparing an appeal of the original verdict.

Why is the lottery doing this? If I understand correctly, the lottery’s whole purpose is to trick the poor into believing their wildest fantasies can come true. It’s the power of those fantasies that allow the lottery to suck money from poor neighborhoods and distribute it to the state Treasury and lottery officials. So why, then, is the lottery trying so hard to destroy those fantasies?

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The mystery becomes more intriguing when you understand the shallowness of the commission’s claims against Barnett. Most likely you have seen the videotape of the sad event, but if not, let me describe what it shows:

When the ball settles into the $3-million position, Barnett and show host Geoff Edwards are standing next to the wheel. Immediately Edwards throws his hands in the air and shouts, “Three million dollars!”

Studio lights flash, bells ring. Barnett begins to whoop and jump. Her children rush from the audience and also whoop and jump. The words "$3 million” are repeatedly superimposed on the television screen. It is clear that the lottery has proclaimed a winner.

Meanwhile, unnoticed and pernicious, the wheel has continued to turn ever so slowly. As the ball arrives at roughly the 8 o’clock position, it daintily drops off the pins cradling it and settles in the $10,000 slot.

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On the tape Barnett and family remain oblivious to the change until Edwards taps her on the shoulder and turns her to face the wheel. He tells her the ball did not stay in the slot for a required five seconds and puts his arm around her shoulder. “Rules are rules,” he says.

You bet, Geoff. Except, as shown at the trial, the lottery virtually never observed that five-second rule when announcing its winners. The jurors watched tape after tape of other winners being anointed immediately, no waiting required.

Even worse, it’s possible that the Barnett ball did indeed stay in the $3-million spot for the required five seconds. Analysis of various videotapes during the trial yielded different counts, ranging from 2.5 seconds to the full 5. At best, the issue is in doubt.

So with this thin justification, and even after losing at trial, the Lottery Commission has decided to keep Barnett’s money as long as possible. That may be many months or even years. The lottery seems to be saying that its standard procedure of feeding on the poor is not enough. Now it will also steal from the winners.

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I doubt seriously that any of the commissioners know much about Barnett, so let me fill them in. Doris Barnett is 54 years old and lives with her blind mother in a small bungalow. She was born in Prentiss, Miss., to a family that picked cotton for a living, and she came to Los Angeles when she was young because she wanted something better.

At first the promise here seemed fulfilled. Barnett became a practical nurse and she started a family with her husband. But the city also exacted its price. In 1969 one of her daughters was gunned down at school. The murder was never solved, and the family eroded. Soon after, she and her husband broke up.

So it’s not surprising that a particular dream flashed through Doris Barnett’s mind when she hit the jackpot. It was the dream of going home to Mississippi in style, of going back to buy property with her mother, of never having to pick cotton. Not a bad dream.

It’s a dream that the lottery commissioners just might consider the next time they decide to cheat Doris Barnett a little longer. Since, after all, they are in the business of dreams.

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