A defense attorney on Tuesday defied a judge by refusing to continue with the sanity phase of a Turlock murder trial. The judge was forced to suspend the trial and remove the attorney, who now faces court sanctions and discipline from the State Bar of California.
Defense attorney Steven O’Connor said in court that he was not competent and wanted off the case.
“I’m not going to proceed in this case,” O’Connor told the judge. “You can find me in contempt. You can notify the State Bar.”
Stanislaus Superior Court Judge Linda McFadden said this is the first time she has had to report an attorney’s behavior to the State Bar. She informed O’Connor that she is required by law to notify bar officials.
The judge repeatedly warned O’Connor to return to the courtroom at 1:30 p.m. and be ready to resume the trial with the sanity phase. The judge advised the attorney to consult legal counsel before doing something that could have repercussions.
“You are an officer of the court, and you’ve taken an oath to represent your client’s interests,” McFadden told O’Connor. “I’m warning you. You will be here at 1:30 p.m.”
O’Connor represented defendant Nicholas John Harris, who was found guilty last month of second-degree murder and arson in the stabbing death of Mark Anthony Henson.
The same jury that convicted Harris returned to the courthouse Tuesday morning to hear testimony about Harris’ mental health when Henson was stabbed to death. Harris had pleaded not guilty by reason of insanity. But the jurors never entered the courtroom Tuesday.
O’Connor asked to be removed from the case because he said he provided incompetent legal representation during the trial’s guilt phase. O’Connor argued that his client needs to appeal the verdict, so the attorney claimed he couldn’t continue with the sanity phase.
Judge McFadden said Harris will have an opportunity to appeal the verdict when the trial has concluded and he has been sentenced. But the sanity phase of the trial has to happen first.
She also told O’Connor that he had 11 days to prepare himself for the sanity phase, and that his argument does not provide the court with a legal reason to appoint a new attorney to represent Harris.
O’Connor asked the judge to go ahead and proceed with a contempt of court hearing, because he was not planning to continue with the case. “That will not happen, period,” the attorney told the judge.
The judge, however, wanted to wait until Tuesday afternoon to decide how she would proceed. She advised O’Connor to return to the courtroom with his own attorney.
“I’m giving you some time to think about what you’re doing,” Judge McFadden told the attorney.
O’Connor returned to the courtroom shortly after 1:30 p.m. Tuesday without an attorney.
When the judge asked the defense attorney whether he had reconsidered what he was threatening to do, O’Connor answered, “I have nothing to add from this morning.”
The judge then cleared the courtroom to question O’Connor without the prosecutor or the public. She said the discussion could possibly reveal information that could prevent Harris from receiving a fair trial.
After 30 minutes, the judge reopened the courtroom and announced that O’Connor did not provide a sufficient legal basis to be relieved from the case.
The judge ordered O’Connor to continue representing Harris in the trial’s sanity phase. The defense attorney responded, “I cannot and will not do that.”
McFadden said the defendant and the prosecution have a right to a speedy trial, and O’Connor waited until Tuesday morning to say he couldn’t proceed with the trial.
Deputy District Attorney Michael Houston told the judge that prosecutors are also required to report such behavior by an attorney to the State Bar, and that he will do so. He said O’Connor abandoned his client during a trial, which also should be grounds for a contempt of court charge.
Judge McFadden agreed with the prosecutor. She scheduled O’Connor to return to court July 15, so she can determine how to proceed with possible court sanctions. O’Connor will then have a chance to respond to the court.
The judge reluctantly suspended the case and relieved O’Connor, appointing the county Public Defender’s Office to represent Harris. It’s unclear who will take on the case, but the judge said that attorney will need time to get caught up.
O’Connor told the judge that Harris wants to hire his own attorney. For now, the case is stalled. The jury was asked to return to the courthouse July 15, presumably after a new defense attorney has been appointed or hired.
Mental disorder claimed
Harris testified in the trial that he has been diagnosed with bipolar disorder, and that playing video games such as “Grand Theft Auto” might have contributed to his mental state that night. “I believe I was having a manic episode,” he told the jury.
The stabbing occurred Aug. 12, 2008, in a neighborhood a few blocks east of California State University, Stanislaus.
Deputy District Attorney Michael Houston argued in the trial that Harris wanted to eliminate the man he believed had been bothering his then-girlfriend over the previous few weeks.
Harris found Henson sleeping in the front seat of his Mitsubishi. Henson woke up, and Harris walked around the car. The defendant testified that he pulled out his knife as he approached Henson, who was still seated in the car.
A struggle ensued. The prosecutor told the jury that Harris repeatedly stabbed Henson in the back.
In his closing argument, O’Connor asked the jury to find his client guilty of a lesser charge, such as voluntary manslaughter or involuntary manslaughter. He said the evidence shows his client acted out of fear for his life.
The defendant testified that he did not intend to stab or kill Henson. He said he intended to burn the man’s car to send him a message, but the plan changed when Henson pulled out a butterfly knife.
The prosecutor argued that Henson did not have a knife during the deadly encounter. Houston said medics, firefighters and police investigators never found a butterfly knife.
After the stabbing, Henson staggered to a nearby home seeking help. He died later at a hospital.
As Henson went looking for help, the defendant poured gasoline on the car’s roof and hood. Harris testified that he lit the car on fire using a lighter, burning himself in the process.