Attorneys for a teen accused of killing a flea market employee are trying to remove Judge Patrick Michot from the case, according to a motion filed Friday, the end of another discouraging week in Lafayette criminal court due to Louisiana’s ill-funded public defender system.
Earl Joseph III’s attorneys, G. Paul Marx and Jane Hogan, claim Michot’s meeting with Assistant District Attorney Michele Billeaud on Thursday amounted to improper ex parte communication, which is improper dialogue with a judge that leaves out one side in a pending court matter.
The motion to recuse Michot was filed Friday and written by Hogan, a former attorney with the 15th Judicial District Public Defenders Office that is headed by Marx. Hogan remains on Joseph’s legal team even though she’s not getting paid.
According to the motion, Billeaud and Michot met Friday to discuss a hearing in the Joseph case that was scheduled for Friday morning.
Attorney Thomas Rimmer, who works for the Public Defenders Office, also was at that meeting. But he’s not Joseph’s attorney. Hogan wrote that Rimmer was pulled into the meeting to satisfy the rule on improper communication even though Rimmer knew nothing about Joseph’s case and could not contribute to the teen’s defense.
“The notion that the mere presence of any defense attorney remedies the improper communication is unacceptable,” Hogan wrote and added that no attempt was made to contact her or Marx.
“Judge Michot has acted in a manner that undermines the neutrality of the judiciary,” Hogan wrote.
Judge Thomas Duplantier on Friday was assigned to preside over the request to recuse Michot. No date for a hearing has been set.
Joseph had just turned 15 when he was accused of shooting Michael Patin to death at the Jockey Lot Flea Market in February 2014. He was charged with first-degree murder, a capital offense, but because of his age, the death penalty is off the table. He could, however, spend the rest of his life behind bars if he’s found guilty.
Joseph, now 17, at first was represented by private attorneys, but they backed out after a few months. So like thousands of other poor people accused of criminal actions in Lafayette, Acadia and Vermilion parishes, Joseph was assigned counsel from among Marx and his public defenders.
Late last year and in early 2016, however, a state funding crisis put a squeeze on public defender districts across Louisiana. Some districts are hurting more than others, including the 15th District. Earlier this year, Marx laid off or accepted the resignations of more than half of his staff and canceled the contracts of all of his seasoned criminal defense attorneys.
There is some relief coming: The Legislature will provide some funds statewide come July 1. And some of the contracted criminal defense lawyers in the 15th District are trickling back to work after a fund controlled by the district’s judges has allotted money through June to pay for defending certain cases.
For now, the dearth of attorneys for the poor has bottlenecked the local justice pipeline: Thousands of defendants charged with felony and misdemeanor crimes remain in legal limbo waiting on legal counsel, which is a right guaranteed by the U.S. Constitution.
It’s been frustrating for prosecutors, defenders and the defendants themselves. And for judges too.
A clearly perturbed Judge Michot on Thursday, before the alleged improper communication with prosecutor Billeaud, tried to deal with a courtroom full of defendants who had no lawyers. One news outlet called the scene “Court Chaos” in a headline.
“Is there anybody here willing to take his case?” Michot said in a call to all attorneys in the packed courtroom.
It was a question Michot repeated in the hourslong docket hearing, including for 22-year-old Joseph Paul Miller Jr., who is charged with carnal knowledge of a juvenile. There were no takers for that case. “Mr. Miller, I can’t find you a lawyer. You’re going to have to be reset,” Michot said.
Michot also asked for volunteers to aid a jailed man who had applied for post-conviction relief and sought a reduced sentence. This time, there was a taker. Richard Spears, a career criminal defense attorney based in New Iberia, was in Michot’s court on another matter and volunteered.
“Something moved me to take the case,” Spears said Friday. “I felt like I needed to help fill in until this crisis is solved.”
Michot also had a rancorous round with Rimmer, the public defender who later on Thursday reportedly resisted being pulled into the meeting with Billeaud and Michot.
Michot ordered Rimmer to accept a client who was accused in a crime that allegedly involved another person whom Rimmer already was representing.
“I’m ethically obligated to refuse the case,” Rimmer told Michot.
Follow Billy Gunn on Twitter, @BillyGunnAcad.