Big Changes Possible for Assigning Lawyers Indigent Cases – NEWS – Austin Statesman

With such a large population of indigent defendants, I am surprised nothing like this was implemented sooner. 



In a move some legal experts call a possible game changer, Travis County judges want to cede to attorneys the power of choosing private defense lawyers for poor defendants.

The plan has emerged from nearly two years of discussions among judges, attorneys and court administrators, and its main drivers have been judges who say the current criminal indigent defense system has grown too unwieldy for their sole control and doesn’t meet American Bar Association ethics guidelines.

If approved and funded by county commissioners, a new office of Travis County Private Defender — an estimated $670,000 nonprofit under the control of the private defense bar — would assign lawyers to indigent cases, determine compensation for their work and derive a set of standards to evaluate their performance.

Critics of the petition say the measures could prove costly and fuel layers of unneeded bureaucracy. But proponents say it is time to drastically reshape the county’s indigent defense services into a more uniform and fair system.

Outside legal experts say such a new structure in one of the five largest counties in Texas could become a state — and even national model — for equal representation.

“Judges do not pick the prosecutors, and they should not pick the lawyer representing the person accused of committing crime,” said state Sen. Rodney Ellis, D-Houston. “If the county moves forward with this, it will be a very big deal. It will be a proud day for the state of Texas.”

Counties across the state have been grappling with improving indigent defense services since the passage of the Fair Defense Act in 2001, which aimed to elevate the quality of representation for people of low means and to assure the parity in resources between prosecution and defense teams essential to a fair trial.

The law, authored by Ellis, mandated that Texas counties enact their own formal processes to ensure prompt counsel appointments, and it founded the Texas Indigent Defense Commission to provide financial and technical support to local governments as they worked to achieve the goal.

Travis County was a trendsetter at that time, said Jim Bethke, executive director of the commission. The county’s criminal state judges in the late 1980s devised a procedure that influenced jurisdictions statewide: a rotating list, or “wheel,” that courts could use to appoint private lawyers to indigent cases, so they could be selected chronologically rather than at their lone discretion.

Its use “promotes a neutral and fair process for distributing appointments among lawyers,” Bethke said. “It does nothing, however, to enhance the quality of the legal services provided by court-appointed lawyers.”

And the county has failed to evolve, defense lawyers and legal experts said, even as other large counties have gradually moved toward public defender systems and managed assigned counsel programs, formal structures that they say do more to address equal representation at public expense.

A questionable arrangement

Travis County court officials have established public defender offices for juvenile and mental health defendants. But its indigent defense services for adults remain an $8 million ad hoc system that handles about 25,000 cases annually — roughly 68 percent of felonies and 46 percent of misdemeanors — and is virtually under control of its 13 state and county judges.

The “wheel” has evolved into an electronic process under the Office of Court Administration, which takes applications from lawyers who wish to receive court-appointed referrals. Staff members screen them for basic requirements and compile their information to place them on the rotating index.

But judges decide who stays on the list and what level of cases they are equipped to handle, an evaluation of now more than 250 attorneys that they say is cursory and happens only once a year. Judges also are still able to make arbitrary appointments from the bench, and they must manage defense counsel fees and funding for experts and investigators.

Handling such duties can negatively impact their relationships with defense lawyers, judges say, and don’t comply with American Bar Association principles — the first of which requires the administration of the process to be independent from the judiciary.

Legal experts, like Ellis, describe the arrangement as “inherently illegal.” Attorneys have their own complaints: inconsistent vouchers and caseloads.

There are no regular measures to review attorney caseloads, while judges have disparate methods for providing compensation and resources, and some decline to pay for more work, defense lawyers said. The result is a treadmill, on which lawyers are pushed to take quick plea agreements rather than taking more time on investigations or going to trial and on which defendants, many of whom are minorities, become trapped in the system, attorneys and legal officials said.

“I have had judges deny me the right to an investigator. I’ve had judges say, ‘Whatever you need,’” defense lawyer Jackie Wood said. “I would hope that one person or one office making the decisions would be better and more consistent than six or seven different personalities.”

A new state model

The plan to create a Travis County Private Defender aims to establish a more centralized and transparent command structure so that one team is making the administrative calls, said Bradley Hargis, president of the Austin Criminal Defense Lawyers Association.

Retired District Judge Mike Lynch drafted the initial proposal shortly before leaving the bench in December 2012, drawing input from other judicial members and another piece of legislation passed by Ellis in 2011, a law authorizing counties to form managed assigned counsel programs.

Small groups of lawyers and court officials have since traveled to examine assigned counsel offices in San Mateo, Calif., home to the first in the country, and in Lubbock, the first county to implement the program in Texas. Hargis said the office in Travis County would take from those designs but would be unique as it would install “more checks and balances.”

The latest plan, which court officials expect to present to county commissioners this month, seeks to create a joint-venture nonprofit between the Austin Bar Association and the Austin Criminal Defense Lawyers Association that would consist of three entities: a board of directors, a review panel of veteran criminal defense lawyers and an oversight committee of court and county officials.

The board would handle fiduciary responsibilities, financial disclosures and attorney applications for the court-appointment wheel, while the review panel would screen petitioners and ultimately decide which attorneys qualify to represent indigent defendants.

“This will create a lot more input from a lot more attorneys, and you also have greater transparency,” Hargis said. “You are not just leaving it all up to one person (or board) who could exercise some bias — whether intentional or not — in making decisions.”

The new office also would develop a mentoring program for lawyers who fall short of meeting standards, and judges would maintain some say in the process through the oversight committee, which would meet quarterly with the board of directors and receive monthly and annual status reports.

Judges are seeking permission from county commissioners to apply for a five-year grant from the state indigent defense commission to help fund the majority of the initiative in its first year.

But the proposal faces opposition from critics who say county officials would still have to spend more than a half a million dollars to create a complicated new system when the old one isn’t broken. Some defense lawyers question the motivations behind the push for change, saying judges are simply looking for a way to trim attorneys who they believe are unqualified from the court-appointment wheel.

But such cuts wouldn’t help those lawyers improve and would only lead to higher caseloads for others who remain on the list, attorneys said.

Others question the ability of their own colleagues to rate attorneys and their work.

“How do they intend to measure the quality of representation?” asked defense lawyer Chantal Eldridge. “Every case is different. Every fact and scenario is different.”

District Judge Julie Kocurek, who serves as the presiding judge over the state criminal courts, said judges are nervous about surrendering most of their control.

“It is uncomfortable because it is something new,” Kocurek said. “But I think, in the long run, Travis County has gotten so big that we have to have a different type of system in order to manage that (indigent defense) fund better. To me, this is all growing pains for our county.”


Tire Slasher Convicts Himself – News – The Austin Chronicle

This situation is a prime example of why it is NEVER a good idea to represent yourself if you are accused of a crime.


Tire Slasher Convicts Himself – News – The Austin Chronicle.

Determined to defend himself, the Hyde Park tire slasher gets 10 years


Tommy Joe Kelley

Tommy Joe Kelley

Seventeen long years after the legendary Hyde Park tire slasher first began wreaking his peculiar brand of havoc in Central Austin, it took less than half an hour for a Travis County jury to decide last Wednesday, Nov. 9, that behind the madness was Tommy Joe Kelley, a 56-year-old homeless man with a rap sheet the length of a Russian novel. For citizens of Hyde Park, it was the end of a long neighborhood nightmare that included hundreds of instances of tire-directed criminal mischief, resulting in tens of thousands of dollars in damage and an unquantifiable amount of irritation and angst. For Kelley, it was the beginning of a new private nightmare: 10 years in prison, with the very real possibility that more court cases, and more years, could be on the way.

Kelley’s two-day trial – held last week in Judge Julie Kocurek‘s 390th Crim­inal District Court – was, if nothing else, proof of the old saw that a man who defends himself has a fool for a client. Deemed competent to stand trial by a court-appointed psychiatrist following his February arrest, Kelley opted to defend himself, a decision that resulted in several key legal missteps that any first-year trial lawyer might have readily avoided. Kelley’s inexperience turned what should have been a straightforward, winnable case dealing with one count of unlawful use of a criminal instrument and circumstantial evidence (Kelley was spotted by a police officer sharpening a thin, long piece of metal on the ground into a fine point on Dec. 31, 2010) into a sprawling saga about an angry man with a long criminal record and a history of drunken violence, the neighbors he tormented, the police officers he battled nearly every day of his life, and – most damning of all – the Homeric, near-mythic collection of automobile-directed crimes he allegedly perpetrated over the course of almost two decades.

It didn’t have to be that way. At the close of the first day, prosecutors Jason English and Rob Drummond had failed to convince Kocurek to allow the testimony of the case’s lead detective, Eric Hoduski, and Hyde Park Neighborhood Association Tire Slash­er Task Force leader Heather Freeman (testimony the prosecutors said would introduce Kelley’s history of tire assaults, establish a pattern of criminal behavior identical to that of the slasher, and show an uptick in incidents when Kelley was out of jail) on the grounds that it would be speculative, “extremely prejudicial,” and based on hearsay. With that decision, it looked like Kelley had a real chance – that the county’s case was too circumstantial to convince a jury of criminal intent. Things looked so bad for the district attorney’s case, in fact, that Freeman (who had methodically amassed evidence against Kelley for months) admitted to this reporter outside the courtroom, “We’re losing.”

But on the second day, Kelley began presenting his case, and almost immediately the wheels came off. He called several police officers to the stand whose testimony opened the door for the prosecution to talk about his criminal record, his long and hostile history with the Austin Police Department, and the whole legend of the Hyde Park tire slasher, a story that otherwise would have remained unknown to the jury. Then Kelley let HPNA President* Lisa Harris explain to the jury how slashing incidents waned during periods when Kelley was in jail and jumped again when he was free. You could almost feel the noose tightening in the courtroom.

Finally, waiving his constitutional right not to incriminate himself, Kelley withered under cross-examination by English, admitting to having slashed tires in the past, to holding a grudge against APD and the people of Hyde Park, and even to lying on the stand under oath. From there, all the prosecution had to do was take what Kelley had given them and tie it all into a single narrative, stacking up circumstantial evidence until it added up to proof beyond a reasonable doubt that Kelley wasn’t just a persecuted homeless man with a homemade knife, but the one and only tire slasher.

Drummond persuaded the jury to sentence Kelley to 10 years by saying the defendant had “violated the community and the people he lived among. … He tears at the fabric of this community.” That may have been Kelley’s crime on the streets of Hyde Park, but his sin in the courtroom was summed up best by something Drummond said earlier to a colleague, while the jury was deliberating: “Cross-examinations are usually more suicidal than homicidal.”

Pending any prosecution on the related charges, Kelley has 10 years to think about what might have been.

*Due to an editing error, this passage originally identified HPNA President Lisa Harris incorrectly.

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Jackson’s doctor found guilty of manslaughter – Entertainment – Celebrities –

Jackson’s doctor found guilty of manslaughter – Entertainment – Celebrities – 

Dr. Conrad Murray was found guilty of involuntary manslaughter in the 2009 death of singer Michael Jackson on Monday.

The seven-man, five-woman panel had to be unanimous on their decision to either convict or acquit Dr. Conrad Murray of involuntary manslaughter in Jackson’s June 2009 death. They began deliberating Friday and did not meet over the weekend. Overall they deliberated for about nine hours.

After hearing the news that a decision had been reached, Jackson’s sister La Toya tweeted “Verdict is FINALLY IN!!! I’m on my way! I’m shaking uncontrollably!”

Jackson died from a fatal dose of the anesthetic propofol; Murray has acknowledged giving Jackson propofol to help him sleep.

During closing arguments of the six-week trial, attorneys for the Houston-based cardiologist attacked prosecutors and their witnesses, saying they had over time developed stories and theories that placed the blame for Jackson’s death squarely on Murray.

Prosecutors countered that Murray was an opportunistic and inept doctor who left Jackson’s three children without a father. They said that Murray giving Jackson propofol as a sleep aid violated standards of care and amounted to a secret experiment in which the doctor kept no records.

Jurors heard from 49 witnesses and had more than 300 pieces of evidence to consider. They were given lengthy instructions by the judge about how to deliberate.

Murray faces a sentence ranging from probation to four years behind bars, and he would lose his medical license. The sentence will be decided by Superior Court Judge Michael Pastor after receiving input from attorneys for both sides and probation officials, if necessary.

A recent change in California law means that Murray, 58, might serve time in a county jail rather than a state prison. A prison term could be shortened by overcrowding.

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Lohan sentenced to 30 days, won’t serve it all – Entertainment – Celebrities –









Lohan sentenced to 30 days, won’t serve it all – Entertainment – Celebrities –

Oh celebrity justice strikes again . . .

A judge on Wednesday sentenced Lindsay Lohan to serve 30 days in jail for a probation violation, but due to jail overcrowding, she will only serve a portion of that time. is reporting the actress will serve just six days of the sentence due to California’s jail overcrowding issues. She cannot serve those six days under house arrest or electronic monitoring.

Superior Court Judge Stephanie Sautner sentenced the actress for violating the terms of her release by being terminated from a community service assignment at a women’s shelter.

The actress acknowledged she violated her probation.Sautner imposed a complicated sentence on the actress, telling her that she will now have to perform all of her community service at the county morgue or risk serving an additional 270 days in jail.

“The sentence I’m going to impose is known in our circles as putting the keys to the jail in the defendant’s hands,” the judge said.

The judge also ordered Lohan to continue undergoing counseling sessions and kept the actress on a short leash. The judge told Lohan she must report back to court in December, January, February and March for updates.

Lohan’s Twitter habit was also mentioned by the judge, who said that the morgue staff “seemed to have issues with you tweeting.” Sautner did not prohibit Lohan from using Twitter but suggested she not tweet about her morgue work, adding “I ordered them not to hold press conferences [about Lohan].”

Lohan will also get a new probation officer, characterized as “no nonsense” by Sautner, and Sautner said she has ordered the new officer to report any violations directly to the court. If Lohan fails to comply with the new sentence, Sautner said she would immediately send the actress to jail for the remaining 270 days of her sentence.

It will Lohan’s fifth jail sentence since being arrested twice for drunken driving in 2007. The 25-year-old last served 35 days on house arrest on a four month jail sentence.

Sautner revoked Lohan’s probation at a hearing nearly two weeks ago.

The “Mean Girls” star has been reporting to the Los Angeles morgue regularly, which Sautner ordered her to do at the last court appearance on Oct. 19. The judge had sentenced Lohan to serve 120 hours doing janitorial work at coroner’s office in April, but expressed hope that the actress would benefit from working three times that amount of hours at a women’s shelter.

Lohan was terminated from the shelter program after failing to show up nine times at the center. She told her probation officer the assignment was not fulfilling, according to the actress’ probation report.

The actress’ morgue service has not been without drama — she was turned away the first day after showing up 40 minutes late. She has shown up early several times since then. Assistant Chief Coroner Ed Winter declined to characterize how Lohan’s service was progressing Tuesday.

The former Disney star has been sent to jail, rehab, counseling and community service numerous times since being arrested twice for drunken driving in 2007. Her probation on that case is nearly over, but her release remains supervised after Lohan in May pleaded no contest to misdemeanor theft for taking a $2,500 necklace without permission in January.

Once a headlining actress, Lohan’s court and personal troubles have overshadowed her career for years.

© 2011 MSNBC Interactive