Since his arrest nearly 16 months ago on charges of rape and kidnapping at a North Side hotel, Shauntae M. Woods has parted ways with four defense attorneys.
He hired his fifth in October.
It’s an extreme example of what can happen when a criminal defendant doesn’t get along with his attorney or doesn’t like the advice he’s receiving.
“Some defendants use the firing of lawyers as a ruse to delay the case or drag it out long enough that victims or witnesses are lost or unavailable,” Franklin County Prosecutor Ron O’Brien said.
“I’m not saying that’s what Mr. Woods is doing, but there are enough normal delays in cases that additional delays are frustrating for us and for victims.”
Merisa Bowers, Woods’ current attorney, wouldn’t comment on the reasons her client has changed his attorney so many times.
The prosecutor’s office has said in court documents that it has been ready since August to try the case, which has been continued 10 times. The current trial date is Feb. 18.
Woods, 26, is accused of brandishing a gun and forcing his way into a room at the Columbus Inn and Suites, 6121 Zumstein Dr., around 12:15 a.m. on Sept. 11, 2012.
He is accused of locking two men in the bathroom and raping three women. After one of the women fled, Woods entered another hotel room where a man wrestled the gun away from him as officers arrived, Columbus police said.
He faces 18 first-degree felonies, each of which carries up to 11 years in prison. Attached to the charges are gun specifications and sexually violent predator specifications, which could result in a life sentence.
W. Joseph Edwards, who served as Woods’ third attorney and has practiced law for 25 years, estimated that more than 95 percent of criminal defendants stay with their original lawyer. Most of those who change lawyers, he said, are facing significant felony charges with lengthy prison time.
Edwards wouldn’t discuss Woods’ case, but he said many defendants don’t react well when their attorney tells them the amount of prison time the prosecutor is offering as part of a plea bargain.
“If you say, ‘You’d better take this deal because you’ll do twice as much time if you go to trial and lose,’ they think you’re not fighting for them,” Edwards said.
J. Tullis Rogers, a Columbus defense attorney for 45 years, said the leading reason defendants ask for a new lawyer is they received “bad news” from their original lawyer.
“They think someone else will give them better news,” Rogers said. “They expect the second lawyer to beat the deal that is on the table. In the vast majority of cases, you’ll never get a better deal than the one negotiated by the previous counsel.”
Indigent defendants who are represented by the public defender’s office or a court-appointed lawyer can change lawyers only with permission from the judge assigned to the case. Those who have the money to hire their own attorney have more freedom to change.
Woods, who says he is indigent, began with a public defender but has since hired three of his lawyers with the help of family and friends.
Franklin County Common Pleas Judge Daniel T. Hogan said he receives about one request a week from indigent defendants who want a new attorney. He estimated that he approves such a request only three or four times a year.
“They have to tell me something pretty drastic,” Hogan said. “Generally, the court has to be convinced that the lawyer has fallen below the standards” required in the profession, “or something has happened that has destroyed the attorney-client relationship.”
If the lawyer agrees that the relationship is beyond repair, that’s usually enough to make a change, Hogan said.
As for defendants with the money to hire a new attorney, Hogan said judges still can work to prevent delays in the case.
“I’ll tell them, ‘If you want to hire a new one, that’s none of my business, but here’s the court date and you have to come back here ready to go.’”
By John Futty - The Columbus Dispatch, Ohio (MCT)
©2014 The Columbus Dispatch (Columbus, Ohio)
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