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Joe Cannon

Another appeals court case to be proud of

By “proud”, I mean “deeply embarrassed”. Here’s Rick Casey discussing a decision by the 1st Court of Appeals in which the infamous case of death row inmate Calvin Burdine and his sleeping lawyer, Joe Cannon is referenced, and not in a good way.

“Like the ‘sleeping lawyer’ case, this case will stand as a significant embarrassment in the history of Texas jurisprudence,” wrote Justice Terry Jennings in a stinging dissent.

This isn’t a death penalty case, but a lawsuit in which child protection authorities sought to terminate a father’s parental rights. We Texans consider families so important that we give indigent parents a tax-paid attorney to represent them if the state tries to take away their children.

In this case, John Spjut (pronounced “Spyoot”) was appointed to represent Frederick DeWaynne Walker.

Spjut didn’t sleep through the trial. He simply didn’t attend it. Nor did he do much preparation. Walker testified he called Spjut’s office at least five times but never reached him.

Spjut’s bills to the county do not indicate any contact with his client. He did bill the county for filing an answer to the state’s termination lawsuit, writing two letters to Walker, and spending one hour preparing for trial. Total fee: $750.

But on the actual day of the trial, Spjut didn’t show. Instead, he sent his brother Dan to try the case.

It must have been a challenge. Without a lawyer guiding him, Walker had a hard time finding the right courtroom and didn’t show up until after lawyers for the state had put on their case against him.

[…]

By Jennings’ estimate, based on the trial transcript, Dan Spjut’s direct examination of Walker lasted less than four minutes.

The entire trial, Jennings estimated, took less than 45 minutes.

Yet the two other justices on the panel that heard Walker’s appeal ruled that his right to have a lawyer had not been violated. Justice George C. Hanks Jr., joined by Justice Jane Bland, wrote that Walker had to prove that he would likely have won if his attorney had done a better job.

Hanks wrote that Walker didn’t prove that the way Spjut conducted his defense wasn’t “the exercise of reasonable professional judgment.”

Jennings argues in dissent that Walker received “assistance” of counsel “far below that afforded to the criminal defendant in the infamous ‘sleeping lawyer case.’ ”

“Walker’s appointed trial counsel never discussed the case with Walker and then abandoned Walker on the trial date,” he wrote.

I guess if there’s somebody who can be called a “lawyer” that’s with you in the courtroom, that’s good enough. I wonder if any of the justices who render opinions like this have the same expectation of what a basic level of assistance would be from, say, a doctor or a broker.

Sadly, neither of the justices who thought this kind of lawyering was A-OK are up for re-election next year – we’ll have to wait till 2012 to render our own opinions. On a side note, in searching around for info about Calvin Burdine and his snoozing attorney, I came across this old blog post that detailed some fun and games then-District Court Judge, now State Sen. Joan Huffman played in Burdine’s retrial. I wish I’d have remembered it before her election last year, but oh well.