For some, free counsel comes at a high cost
Sunday, April 4, 2004
Page 3 of 5
But in the 2001 deposition, Earl dismissed those responsibilities.
"The county had no intention of me training and evaluating the attorneys," he said. "(T)he language is a bunch of stuff that didn't happen, and they didn't plan on it. ... I didn't do anything to train the attorneys, other than just tell them to be nice and to return their telephone calls."
Earl referred to his subcontractors as "knotheads" who worked independently: "They did whatever they did."
He said it was "up to the judges to tell us if these people are bozos or not."
DEFENSE BY DEAL-MAKING
In the eight-plus years he contracted to do public-defense work in Grant County Superior Court, Romero represented approximately 1,000 defendants, according to a Seattle Times analysis of court data.
Eighty-eight percent of his clients pleaded guilty; statewide, the average is 76 percent.
Romero says those statistics don't define his work as an attorney. Instead, he attributes his trial record and guilty-plea rate to good work by police and to overworked prosecutors eager to cut deals.
A guilty plea does not, by itself, offend justice. But a plea bargain is supposed to be made knowingly, with each side understanding the evidence and legal issues.
Time and again, Romero's clients complained that he failed them: He didn't interview defense witnesses, investigate the state's case or challenge the admissibility of the prosecution's evidence.
Consider the case of Donald Lambert.
In 1997, Romero represented Lambert, a 15-year-old accused of killing a husband and wife, ages 89 and 88, in their Quincy farmhouse. A written transcript of his tape-recorded confession has Lambert saying he went to the victims' house intending to shoot them powerful evidence of premeditation.
As it turned out, Lambert said no such thing.
The damning language appeared in the transcript after a sheriff's detective, trying to enhance inaudible passages on the audiotape, took it home and re-recorded it on his stereo.
But Romero never listened to the recording. So he never caught that crucial mistake.
Lambert pleaded guilty to aggravated first-degree murder, buying the worst sentence he could get: mandatory life, without possibility of parole.
Last year, a U.S. District Court judge vacated Lambert's guilty plea, ruling that Romero had effectively abandoned his client: He conducted an insufficient investigation and failed to advise Lambert adequately about the consequence of his guilty plea.
Lambert thought a life sentence meant 20 years "like in movies," he testified. He also thought he could face the death penalty. He could not, because he was only 15 when the crime occurred.
Further, the judge said, Romero barely prepared for the hearing that determined whether Lambert would be tried as a juvenile or an adult; he didn't interview Lambert's father, teachers or friends; he didn't obtain records about Lambert's school performance or suicide attempts; he didn't pursue the possibility that Lambert might suffer from fetal alcohol syndrome.
The judge found that Romero didn't even tell his client what the hearing was about; in the end, Lambert simply agreed to be tried as an adult.
The state has appealed the judge's ruling.
A troubled attorney defends a troubled teenager
On Feb. 2, 1996, a 14-year-old honor student entered Moses Lake's Frontier Junior High School with a hunting rifle, two handguns and two ammunition belts under his black trench coat. He walked into algebra class and opened fire, killing a teacher and two students, and wounding a third classmate.
His name was Barry Loukaitis. Stunning as his crime was, it proved a presage of school shootings in Littleton, Colo.; Jonesboro, Ark.; and Springfield, Ore.
That Loukaitis pulled the trigger was not in dispute. Yet trying him for murder would be a long, contentious and complicated process, delving into questions of age, accountability, mental illness, genetic predisposition and the very roots of evil.
But when Loukaitis claimed indigent status, Grant County considered it business as usual, and insisted that attorneys be assigned from the standard contract pool; that way, the county would already have paid for Loukaitis' defense.
"The county's goal in this process is to protect its coffers," chief deputy prosecutor Stephen Hallstrom wrote in a letter outlining the county's position.
The county also noted that its contract required all investigative costs incurred by the defense to be paid by the contract holder except in extraordinary cases.
"It would not appear that an extraordinary case exists," Hallstrom wrote.
Two contract lawyers were assigned to Loukaitis.
One, Kenneth Knox, was already on notice that he would be let go that spring. "I'm not even sure why I was appointed, because everybody knew I was going to be out in a few months," Knox says. "Somebody had to be appointed that's all I can think of."
The other was Guillermo Romero.
Romero remained on the case for 17 months, until the eve of trial, despite Loukaitis' repeated pleas for a new lawyer. "I have no trust in the competence of Guillermo Romero," Loukaitis told one judge.
Romero remained despite a challenge from local attorney Garth Dano, who sought to defend Loukaitis at public expense. Dano reviewed more than 200 of Romero's cases and found little evidence of pre-trial preparation: no discovery motions, suppression motions, legal briefs or memoranda.
Romero remained even as his personal troubles mounted and spilled into the courts. In 1995, at least five creditors won judgments against him; in one case, a Yakima judge ordered him arrested for dodging efforts to collect a credit-card debt. Romero received the Loukaitis case three months after being arrested on one contempt-of-court warrant (he posted bail and was released), and two weeks after a second warrant was issued.
Doug Earl said Romero was qualified to handle the case, noting his master's degree in social work, his work with disturbed youth and his prior representation of juveniles accused of attempted murder and assault.
Over time, at least five attorneys were attached to Loukaitis' defense. Romero was the most constant. And in September 1996, seven months after the shootings, he was Loukaitis' sole attorney.
That month, he handled the crucial hearing to determine whether Loukaitis would be tried as a juvenile or as an adult.
Former prosecutor Robert Schiffner called it "the most critical phase of the entire prosecution."
If tried as a juvenile, Loukaitis could be held only until his 21st birthday.
Tried as an adult, he faced a possible life sentence.
Romero says he was "totally prepared" for the hearing: "I was so damn prepared for that, I even amazed myself. You're talking about the Super Bowl here. You're talking about a national case. I kicked butt."
The judge ruled that Loukaitis should be tried as an adult.
A few weeks after the hearing, in another failed attempt to remove Romero from the case, several defense witnesses filed statements claiming he had failed to prepare them adequately, had asked confusing questions or had failed to capitalize on their expertise.
Social worker Kord Roosen-Runge: "In my many years of court work I have never been subjected to such inadequate lawyering, nor have I witnessed it."
Psychiatrist Julia Tybor Moore: "I have never been treated like this before in any forensic case I have done."
Corrections expert Dale Swenson: "I had a real question whether he was a real lawyer."
Swenson, a former administrator of the state Division of Juvenile Rehabilitation, had testified in dozens of cases and was accustomed to attorneys reviewing his credentials and testimony before trial. Sometimes that preparation could take a day or more.
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