The case against accused murderer Neville Potter Jr. hit another snag Monday afternoon when defense attorney Leslie Payton asked the judge to consider taking him off the case.
Potter was tried last month for the February 2009 murders of John "Jack" Diehl and Marvis Chamaro. After more than a day of deliberation, jurors in the case announced that they were deadlocked, forcing V.I.Superior Court Judge Brenda J. Hollar to declare a mistrial.
The case has become more heated in recent weeks, as one of the jurors in the case was arrested and charged with perjury, while a local contractor, Sean O’Connell, was gunned down Sunday night in the same Estate Mandahl neighborhood as Diehl and Chamaro.
In a showing of solidarity for Diehl’s widow JoAnne Sickler and O’Connell’s family, residents from the neighborhood and across the community packed onto one side of the courtroom Monday as Hollar convened a status hearing in hopes of setting a new trial date, which became problematic after Payton told the judge he was ready to be cut loose.
As the trial wrapped last month, Payton told Hollar that he was filing a motion asking to be withdrawn from the case, saying that his regular practice would be affected financially if he had to continue as Potter’s attorney during a new trial.
Payton renewed those sentiments Monday, and explained, in short, that there is also now a conflict between him and Potter, since Potter had recently filed his own motion asking for the case to be dismissed on grounds that Payton was "ineffective" as his attorney during trial.
"This case has not only taken a physical toll on me, but on by family," Payton told Hollar, adding that he, as an attorney in private practice, has also lost money having to turn away cases while he devoted his time to Potter. Saying that he understands he’s an "officer of the court," Payton said he would continue on if necessary, but would be willing to train a new attorney if Hollar grants his request to be let go from the case.
Asking for the government’s opinion, Hollar got an earful from Assistant Attorney General Claude Walker, who said that Potter has been "switching attorneys like he does hats" just to turn the tables in his favor. Walker said Potter has dismissed some of the best criminal defense lawyers in local practice, and is now setting a dangerous precedent by demanding more.
"At some point we have to put our foot down," Walker said, adding that Potter had blown through four attorneys since the case was opened. "Our system cannot sustain a defendant who appoints attorneys at will, and he’s getting into conflicts with his attorneys because he wants to control his defense."
Allowing Potter to continue puts additional strain on the finances of both the court and Attorney General’s Office, Walker added.
"We’re stopping the world for one defendant," he said. "And that defendant refuses to cooperate with them."
Walker asked for an April trial date, but Hollar—who said she had denied Potter’s motion for dismissal—had a couple of things to consider before making a final decision. Along with looking over specific sections of the American Bar Association’s rules dealing with the removal of attorneys, Hollar said she also had to wait for Payton to check on the availability of an expert witness for the retrial.
While Potter told his attorney during the hearing that he had an attorney ready to take over in September should the need arise, Hollar said it didn’t make sense to wait five more months. Payton, on the other hand, said his expert witness would be able to make it down May 24, but Hollar said she had another trial scheduled at that time.
As the hearing wrapped, Payton said he would check to see if the witness was available in June or July, and would file an informational motion once he got an answer.
Hollar, in the meantime, dismissed Monday’s hearing, saying that she could not set a date for the retrial until both matters were settled.
Residents were full of emotion as the hearing let out, as they hugged one another and Sickler in turn. A smile still on her face, Sickler called out, "Thank you," as she walked down the outside stairwell, while her friends leaned over the railing and returned with a "You’re welcome," in unison.
Potter is still in the custody of the Bureau of Corrections pending trial.