Monday, November 1, 2010

Public Defender Conflict Does Not Warrant Reversal

The Montana Supreme Court has affirmed a criminal conviction despite the fact that co-defendants were represented by different offices of the state public defender. The Missoulian reports:

The Montana Supreme Court on Thursday upheld the conviction of Anthony St. Dennis in the 2007 beating death of Forrest Clayton Salcido, a sometimes-homeless veteran from Missoula, saying there was no conflict of interest in his defense.

Both St. Dennis and his co-defendant in the case, Dustin Strahan, were represented by public defenders, a situation that Missoula attorney Colin Stephens claimed violated St. Dennis' constitutional rights.

In response to that appeal, the state contended that "significant hardships" would arise if the Supreme Court ruled that the public defender's office could not represent co-defendants.

St. Dennis, who was an 18-year-old Hellgate High School senior at the time, was one of two men accused of fatally beating and stomping Salcido, 56, near the California Street footbridge along the Clark Fork River trail in Missoula.

Strahan, then 21, testified against St. Dennis when the latter was convicted of deliberate homicide by a Hill County jury in Havre, where the case was moved because of pretrial publicity. St. Dennis eventually was sentenced to 100 years in prison, ineligible for parole for 40 years.

Strahan then cut a deal, pleading guilty to accountability for deliberate homicide in Salcido's death.

Stephens argued to the Supreme Court in July that "one is directly pointing the finger at the other and is represented by an attorney out of the same law firm" - in this case, the Montana Office of Public Defender.

But the Supreme Court found in its 22-page opinion Thursday that such situations should be considered on a case-by-case basis. The court also rejected St. Dennis' contention that the District Court abused its discretion when it denied his requests for immunity for a proposed witness. And it denied his motion for a new trial.

The main focus of the opinion, however, concerned the conflict issue.

"Clearly, no system is fool-proof," Justice Patricia Cotter wrote in the majority opinion. "A conflict of interest could at some point arise out of OPD's operations. However, given the current strong precautions and safeguards, including ethical walls, in place at OPD, dual representation of co-defendants by attorneys in different offices has not created an actual conflict of interest."

Chief Justice Mike McGrath, as well as Justices Michael Wheat, William Leaphart, Jim Rice and Brian Morris concurred.

Justice Nelson dissented and would find that the treatment of the two public defender offices as separate firms to be "an artificial distinction that is not supported by actual practice within the public defender system...In point of fact, the idea that regional public defender offices are separate and independent is a myth."

 Justice Nelson notes that the same public defender appointed the attorneys for both defendants, which "indicates that [the deputy public defender's] authority and supervisory capacity extended over all four attorneys. " The two clients were, most assuredly, directly adverse to each other.

The majority took the ACLU as amicus to task for referring to correspondence outside the record. Justice Nelson contends that the letters at issue "exemplify [the deputy public defender's] authority over and supervision of the counsel he appointed from both regional offices." The letters reflect that the deputy public defender "chastise[d one of the supervised attorneys] for the position she was taking...regarding the examination of some of the physical evidence by an OPD approved expert in Florida." She responded that "they are supposed to be acting as separate offices with respect to these two cases and, as such, she would not hesitate to act in her client's best interests."

Justice Nelson would remand to the district court to consider the conflicts issue in light of the information reflected in the letters.

There may be a problem with the link. The case is State v. St. Dennis, decided October 28, 2010. (Mike Frisch)

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