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Justices Hear Case of Alleged Counsel Conflict

November 06, 2001|Associated Press

WASHINGTON — As part of its broadest review of the death penalty in years, the Supreme Court asked Monday whether a lawyer once appointed to represent a troubled 17-year-old boy could give his all in the courtroom for his next client: the boy's accused killer.

Walter Mickens Jr. did not know about his lawyer's other work, and no one who did know raised an alarm. Lawyers trying to save Mickens from execution discovered the situation years later.

"Walter Mickens has been deprived of his rights . . . to conflict-free counsel," lawyer Robert J. Wagner argued Monday.

The Constitution's 6th Amendment guarantees the right to an attorney. Like many people facing a potential death sentence, Mickens could not afford to hire a lawyer, so the state appointed one for him.

The lawyer--Bryan Saunders--also had been appointed months earlier to represent Mickens' victim, Timothy Hall, in an unrelated case.

Mickens was convicted and sentenced to death in the 1992 stabbing and sexual assault of Hall, whose half-nude body was found sprawled on a dirty mattress in a seedy part of Newport News, Va.

The Mickens case is unlikely to produce an expansive ruling on legal rights in capital cases, but could set a standard for what judges should do when confronted with a potential conflict of interest.

The justices focused Monday on whether a judge should have called foul, or at least held a hearing to determine if Mickens' lawyer could fully do his job.

For Mickens, an impartial lawyer could have meant the difference between life in prison and a death sentence, his new lawyers have said. Saunders did little or nothing to raise questions about Hall's own background, Mickens' new lawyers said.

Most important, Saunders did not tell the jury that Hall may have been a willing sexual partner for Mickens, or even a gay hustler, the new lawyers said. Either way, if sex was consensual, the killing would not carry a death sentence.

At trial, Mickens claimed he was not the killer. Physical evidence, including DNA, linked him to the scene, and the state presented evidence that, after Hall's death, Mickens sold the shoes the victim had been wearing.

After conviction, when the jury was deciding if the crime merited a death sentence, Saunders did not challenge Hall's mother when she made an emotional statement about her son on the stand. Saunders knew that all was not well between mother and son--he had represented Hall in an assault case brought by Hall's mother.

Mickens was hours from execution when the high court stepped in to take his case last spring. The case is Mickens vs. Taylor, 00-9285.

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