Saturday, January 31, 2009

Grant County man awarded $3M for bad lawyer

A Grant County man has been awarded $3 million for spending months in jail because of poor work by his public defender.

SPOKANE, Wash. —

A Grant County man has been awarded $3 million for spending months in jail because of poor work by his public defender.

Felipe G. Vargas was awarded more than $3 million payable by his public defender by a U.S. District Court jury in Spokane after spending more than seven months in the Grant County Jail, falsely accused of child molestation.

Grant County public defender Thomas Earl allegedly pocketed much of his fee for representing Vargas, instead of spending it to mount an adequate defense, the jury decided.

Vargas, 45, maintained his innocence, and his alleged victim recanted three days after Vargas was arrested in November 2003. Police and prosecutors knew that, but they took no steps to free Vargas from jail.

Earl apparently was too busy with 500 other cases and failed to adequately represent Vargas, the jury was told. Earl refused to hire an investigator or other experts or pay for a polygraph, witnesses told the jury. He was working under a $500,000 "flat fee" annual contract, a form of compensation that is banned in the state.

Earl's legal conduct led to his disbarment.

The Washington Supreme Court in September toughened conflict-of-interest rules that say attorneys can't put their personal financial interests ahead of the fair trial rights of criminal defendants.

"There's a movie called 'Gideon's Trumpet,' about Clarence Gideon's successful struggle to convince the U.S. Supreme Court there is a constitutional right to counsel," said Seattle criminal appeals attorney Eric Broman.

"This verdict should send a loud and clear message to other counties that shortcuts cannot be taken to underfund public defense systems," he said. The "$3 million verdict is the kind of trumpet those folks should be able to hear."

Joanne Moore, the director of the Washington state Office of Public Defense, said the jury award sends a message that everyone has the right to an attorney for a fair trial.

Grant County was also named a defendant in Vargas' 2006 civil rights suit and settled last month by paying him $250,000 for "ineffective assistance of counsel."

Moses Lake attorneys Garth Dano and George Ahrend filed the civil rights suit. Dano said Earl, when he represented Vargas, lied to the court when he said he was ready for trial.
"The importance of this case is it said, 'Stop lying to the judges and each other, and don't put your financial interests ahead of your client's,' " Dano said Friday.

John Strait, a legal ethics professor at Seattle University, testified as an expert. Flat-fee contracts, he said, "are all illegal and unethical for any attorney to enter into."

The state Supreme Court has barred any Washington lawyer from signing such a contract, Strait said.

The case went to trial Monday before U.S. District Judge Justin Quackenbush, who refused Earl's repeated requests to dismiss the suit.

The jury awarded Vargas $762,000 in compensatory damages and $2.25 million in punitive damages.

It's possible, however, that Vargas won't see any of the money. Earl had canceled his malpractice insurance and is seeking protection from creditors in U.S. Bankruptcy Court.


Information from: The Spokesman-Review,

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