Friday, July 1, 2005
S.C. Says Criminal Defense Lawyer Must Be Allowed To Withdraw After Gaining Judicial Appointment
By a MetNews Staff Writer
The state Constitution requires that a newly appointed judge be allowed to withdraw as counsel in a criminal case, even if the motion is made on the day set for trial, the California Supreme Court ruled yesterday.
In her last opinion for the court, Justice Janice Rogers Brown said Los Angeles Superior Court Judge Madge Watai—now a member of the State Bar Court—did not violate Carmen Ward’s write to counsel by allowing Morris Jones to withdraw as Ward’s attorney after Jones was appointed to the Compton Municipal Court in 1990.
The justices unanimously affirmed Watai’s decision to sentence Ward to death, based on a jury verdict, for the 1988 murder of David Adkins in Lynwood. Witnesses testified that Ward shot Adkins as a result of a turf dispute between Ward’s Ghost Town Crips and the victim’s Lynwood Neighborhood Crips.
Ward was also charged with another murder, that of Ronald Stumpf, who was apparently killed in a drug-related dispute four months before Adkins. The cases were severed, on Jones’ motion.
There were actually three trials in the case. The first resulted in a second degree murder conviction for the killing of Stumpf, the second in a first degree murder conviction for the killing of Adkins, a prior-murder-conviction special circumstance finding, and a hung jury on the issue of the death penalty.
The third trial resulted in the death penalty verdict.
When Jones moved to withdraw from the second trial, Watai appointed Ronald Skyers, who had previously been designated second-chair counsel, as Ward’s lead attorney. Skyers was appointed to the Compton Municipal Court in 1995 to fill the vacancy created by Jones’ elevation to the Los Angeles Superior Court, and is now a Los Angeles Superior Court judge himself.
Watai had no choice but to grant the motion, Brown wrote.
“Under the California Constitution, “[a] judge of a court of record may not practice law ,’ ” Brown explained. “...Since the trial court had no viable alternative, it had no obligation to conduct a hearing prior to relieving Jones.”
Brown distinguished cases holding that it was error to allow a defense lawyer to withdraw from a capital case without holding a hearing to determine whether the reasons for withdrawal outweighed the possible prejudice. None of those cases, the justice said, dealt with a situation where the state Constitution gave the lawyer no choice but to withdraw.
The case is People v. Ward, 05 S.O.S. 3239.
Copyright 2005, Metropolitan News Company