COLUMBIA, Mo. - Private attorneys will soon take on more clients, as the area's public defender's office struggles with a high caseload.
Boone County Presiding Judge Kevin Crane said that judges will start appointing attorneys in private practice to cases in which the accused cannot afford an attorney.
The decision was predicated by a letter from David Wallis and Sarah Aplin, the heads of the public defender's office covering Boone and Cooper counties. The letter, obtained by ABC 17 News, said attorneys in the office are "currently violating the Rules of Professional Conduct" due to the number of cases they have and the time spent traveling to other counties.
The letter mentions the Missouri Supreme Court decision to punish public defender Karl Hinkebein for improperly handling several cases. Hinkebein admitted that he violated the Rules of Professional Conduct, but put the blame on his health problems and "excessive caseload." The high court put Hinkebein on probation for one year, with the possibility of suspending his law license indefinitely.
Wallis and Aplin's letter said they fear that assigning any more cases to the public defender's office could result in the same disciplinary action being taken against them.
"Their current individual caseloads create a conflict of interest with existing clients because they are forced to chose effective representation of one client to the detriment of other clients," the letter said. "It is also our belief that assigning any new cases to any individual attorneys would create a conflict of interest because they would have no ability to adequately represent either their current or prospective clients."
People that cannot afford attorneys apply for representation from the public defender's office. The public defender's office will still determine whether or not someone is eligible for help, Crane said, but the judge's office will choose an attorney to represent that person in court. The judge will be chosen randomly from a list of active attorneys in Boone County, Crane said. His office was finalizing that list as of Wednesday afternoon.
Public defenders will continue to work on cases they currently have, and would help those people on any new cases filed against them. Wallis and Aplin wrote that people that qualify for public defender services and haven't gotten a lawyer yet would be placed on a "wait list," and notified once one of their attorneys had a caseload that was able to handle another.
Judge Robert Koffman, presiding judge of the circuit covering Cooper County, was in a jury trial Wednesday, and unable to explain how the court would handle the public defender's request.
Gary Oxenhandler, a Columbia attorney and former Boone County judge, similarly appointed private counsel for people in 2012. The public defender's office said they were overloaded with cases, and Oxenhandler felt the only way to maintain people's access to legal help was getting local attorneys onto their cases.
Now, as a practicing attorney in Columbia, Oxenhandler may get one of those cases himself.
"We lawyers, we're a profession," Oxenhandler said. "We took an oath. We said we were going to help people who couldn't help themselves."
While Crane might have to appoint attorneys with little to no experience in the criminal field, help exists locally. Oxenhandler said attorneys can look to their co-workers with that experience.
The Missouri Bar also offers help for attorneys should they need guidance with criminal proceedings.
"What we are working for and interested in is making sure that Missourians' Sixth Amendment right to counsel is honored, that they have effective representation, and that's really what they deserve," Missouri Bar president Morry Cole told ABC 17 News.
The Missouri State Public Defender system and the state of Missouri face a federal lawsuit from former clients of public defenders. The lawsuit being handled by the ACLU claims attorneys in that office did not spend enough time properly preparing for their cases, sometimes only speaking with them the day of their court hearings.
(This story has been updated from its original version, titled "Private attorneys to be appointed for some Boone County criminal cases")