A state board’s unexpected decision to deny a veteran East Baton Rouge Parish public defender’s application to continue handling capital murder cases riled a judge, who Friday questioned the reason for the denial and the potential legal effect of the board’s actions.
Mike Mitchell, director of the parish’s Public Defenders Office, said the Louisiana Public Defender Board’s action will have an immediate and far-reaching impact on the local office, which already has few attorneys certified to handle capital cases.
Mitchell informed state District Judge Tony Marabella that the Baton Rouge-based LPDB recently denied Fred Kroenke’s capital case certification application and also denied local public defender Scott Collier’s application to serve as lead counsel in capital cases.
In any capital case in which a defendant is found to be indigent and his attorneys are appointed by a court, the Louisiana Supreme Court has determined that the defendant must have two attorneys certified to handle capital cases — one designated as lead counsel and the other as associate counsel. Capital, or first-degree murder, cases are cases in which the death penalty is a possible punishment.
Kroenke and Collier represent Richard Matthews, of Slaughter, who is charged with two counts of first-degree murder and five counts of attempted first-degree murder in the Dec. 23, 2009, slaying of two clerical workers at Grady Crawford Construction Co. on Greenwell Springs Road. Matthews had been fired from the firm several months earlier.
The East Baton Rouge Parish District Attorney’s Office is seeking the death penalty against Matthews, 55.
Mitchell, who pointed out after court that he, Collier and Margaret Lagattuta are now the only capital case-certified attorneys in his office, told Marabella he has asked the state board to assign new attorneys to represent Matthews.
Marabella, who noted that Matthews has been under indictment since March 2010, questioned the LPDB’s actions with regard to Kroenke and Collier, who had been previously certified to handle the case.
“How can that be?” asked the judge, stressing that the defendant and the victims’ families have the right to see the case move forward.
“This is brand-new to me as well,” Mitchell said. “This is a brand-new process.”
Marabella said Kroenke and Collier have been doing a very good job representing an uncooperative Matthews under very trying circumstances.
“Why all of the sudden in the middle of a proceeding?” the judge inquired further of the LPDB’s actions. “There’s something wrong. There’s a problem with that. I don’t know what’s going on. That’s a way to stop all first-degree murder cases — decertify attorneys.”
John DiGiulio, the board’s trial-level compliance officer, said Friday that the board has the ultimate say on the certification of court-appointed attorneys in capital cases.
“It was not timed with any particular case,” he said of the board’s recent actions.
After the Louisiana Public Defender Board took over the responsibility of certifying attorneys in capital cases involving indigent defendants, a job previously held by the Louisiana Indigent Defender Board, DiGiulio said, guidelines governing capital representation in such cases were promulgated through the Administrative Procedures Act.
Attorneys wishing to represent indigent defendants in capital cases were asked last year to file an application, he said, and a LPDB committee reviewed those applications. The review process and standards to be applied are much more stringent today, DiGiulio said.
More than 100 applications were received from attorneys wishing to handle capital cases in which the defense is court-appointed, he said.
Kroenke said the letter he received from the board does not specify why his application was denied. He said he has been capital case-certified since the mid-1990s.
DiGiulio, who noted that attorneys can appeal the denial of an application, declined to discuss Kroenke’s denial because he said the committee’s work product is confidential.
“Nobody else wants to do the certification,” DiGiulio said. “It’s not fun or easy.”
Marabella said he does not know what “effect of law” the board’s actions will have. Prosecutor Darwin Miller wondered in court whether the board’s determination will have a “substantive effect” on the case.
Marabella was supposed to rule Friday on Miller’s request that the judge appoint a sanity panel to determine whether Matthews is competent to assist his attorneys, but the judge postponed ruling on the request because of what transpired in court with regard to Kroenke and Collier.
The judge scheduled an Oct. 23 status conference and Nov. 2 motions hearing in the Matthews case and said he will subpoena LPDB officials to attend both.