PORT ALLEN — Attorneys for a Michigan man sentenced to death for his part in a 2006 fatal stabbing have successfully argued to the Louisiana Supreme Court that there may have been a conflict of interest among defense lawyers representing three men implicated in the murder.
Defense attorneys representing Michael J. Garcia, 32; his brother Danil Lee Garcia, 40; and a third accomplice, James Edward “Fat Boy” Nelson II, 27, all worked for the 18th Judicial District Indigent Defender’s Office in 2008 when Michael Garcia was convicted of first-degree murder in the killing of Matthew Millican.
Those circumstances equate to a conflict of interest, an attorney handling Michael Garcia’s appeal wrote in a petition to the Supreme Court.
“We briefed numerous issues to the Louisiana Supreme Court that show that Michael Garcia is entitled to a new trial,” said Billy Sothern, an attorney with the Capital Appeals Project in New Orleans.
The state high court made no decision as to whether Michael Garcia deserves a new trial.
But in a ruling issued Friday, all but one justice agreed the trial court must hold a hearing to determine whether a conflict existed at trial.
An unsigned news release issued by the court reads: “This court determines that it is necessary to evaluate how the attorneys may be associated with the Public Defender’s Office.”
Justice Jeannette Theriot Knoll dissented from the majority opinion arguing that, “the record does not demonstrate an actual conflict of interest, i.e., a conflict that affected counsel’s performance.”
Assistant District Attorney, Tony Clayton, who prosecuted Michael Garcia, said he is “quite frankly concerned” about the ruling.
“This case has dire consequences,” Clayton said. “If the Supreme Court were to rule that this guy can walk out of jail, it opens up Pandora’s Box. This has the potential to have serious consequences.”
Defense attorney Tommy Thompson represented Michael Garcia during the trial. On Monday, Thompson said he had not read the ruling.
Thompson did, however, clarify that although he works cases on behalf of the Public Defender’s Office, he is not an employee of the office, but rather, a “contract defender.”
Thompson said he worked on Michael Garcia’s case from his private office and had no contact with the other lawyers representing Michael Garcia’s codefendants.
Thompson said the Public Defender’s office works under the concept of the “Chinese Wall,” where attorneys simultaneously working on cases with multiple codefendants, work independently.
“That’s so nobody has any input or ability to learn about each other’s cases,” he said.
Attorney Michael Parks, who represented Danil Garcia in 2008, on Monday said that in representing his client, he didn’t pay attention to Michael Garcia’s case and had no input during the trial.
“I heard a little bit about Michael’s case, but did I discuss strategy, no,” he said.
Yolanda Batiste, the attorney who represented Nelson, the third codefendant, is deceased.
A hearing to settle the possible conflict has not yet been set, but prosecutor Clayton said his office is prepared to “use everything within our power” to convince the court there is no conflict.
Clayton said the Public Defender’s Office routinely contracts with defense attorneys who simultaneously represent codefendants implicated in the same crime.
The 18th Judicial District, he said, is large enough — about 90 miles from the northern tip of Pointe Coupee Parish to the southern tip of Iberville Parish — to avoid any conflicts.
“All of these guys have a Chinese Wall around their files,” he said. “We firmly believe there’s no conflict.”
Lawyers on Monday declined to speculate on the likelihood of Michael Garcia getting a new trial.
If the case is retried, prosecutors will likely have to rely on videotaped testimony and transcripts from their star witness — the victim’s female companion, Megan Teresi, who was found dead in Portland, Ore., in April 2009, investigators said. Her cause of death is not known.
During the trial, Teresi testified she and Millican were asleep outdoors behind a motel when brothers Michael and Danil Garcia, both of Lansing, Mich., and James Nelson, of Gibsonton, Fla., armed with knives and machetes, kidnapped them and took them into a remote area.
Teresi testified that the men hog-tied Millican with his own boot laces and then raped her repeatedly while Millican was forced to watch.
She further testified that Michael Garcia and Nelson led Millican away at knifepoint and were laughing when they returned later without him.
Michael Garcia was convicted of first-degree murder on June 6, 2008, and sentenced to death.
Danil Garcia pleaded guilty to principle to second-degree murder in July 2008 and was sentenced to life in prison.
Nelson pleaded guilty in December 2008 to conspiracy to commit second-degree murder, three counts of forcible rape, second-degree kidnapping and armed robbery. He was sentenced to 60 years in prison in January 2009.
Judge Robin Free presided over all three cases.