Even though a defendant argued his public defender had a conflict of interest because her boss at the PD’s office represented a witness set to testify against him, the South Carolina Court of Appeals found no conflict.
Nathaniel Wright was convicted of murdering his brother in Jasper County Circuit Court in February 2016, according to the unanimous published decision of the court.
“The big thing here is that there is a rule of professional responsibility that applies to public defenders,” said University of South Carolina criminal law Professor Kenneth Gaines. “The rule has been relaxed because there are so few. It’s designed to give them more leeway … The court said since nobody talked about this, there was no actual conflict.”
Wright was originally arrested in October 2014 after police said he shot his brother, Maurice Wright, after an argument over money. Police said that Wright shot Maurice eight times, and that he allegedly said he did it because he felt disrespected.
After a brief police chase, Wright was captured and charged with murder, weapon possession and failure to stop for police.
The alleged conflict of interest first came up when Wright’s attorney filed a motion for a continuance and to be relieved as counsel shortly before trial. The motion occurred after evidence was released a week before trial revealing the identity of a witness who was testifying against Wright.
The confidential informant turned out to be a client of Wright’s attorney’s boss in the PD office. Furthermore, the witness was testifying against Wright in exchange for a plea deal.
At the time, Wright’s attorney argued she should not be forced to continue to represent Wright against his wishes because of the perceived conflict.
However, the trial court decided to take testimony from the chief public defender and the attorney’s supervisor, asking both under oath if they had discussed the case with Wright’s attorney.
When both said they had not, Jasper County Superior Court Judge Michael Nettles ruled that no actual conflict of interest had occurred. As a result, the requests for a continuance and for Wright’s attorney to be relieved were both denied.
Shortly thereafter, attorney Jared Newman, a solo attorney out of Port Royal, arrived in court and said that Wright’s family member had hired him to take over Wright’s representation. As a result, Newman asked for a continuance to review the case, and again, the court denied the request, but allowed Newman to act as co-counsel.
The South Carolina Court of Appeals, citing the state’s Rules of Professional Conduct and the South Carolina Appellate Court Rules, decided that while two attorneys working for the same firm cannot represent clients on opposite sides of a case, there are two exceptions that allow this to happen in a public defender’s office.
The exceptions state that the public defenders must be restricted from having access to confidential information relating to each other’s cases and that they must retain total control over what happens in their client’s cases, independent of the office.
According to the court, while there was no specific screening mechanism preventing the public defenders from talking to each other about the conflicting cases, the testimony of the supervisors shows that no information was shared.
“While we are troubled by the situation, we are confident in the trial court’s attempt to ensure no actual conflict existed,” Chief Judge James Lockemy wrote in the majority opinion. “Accordingly, the public defender’s office accomplished the purpose of the rule and Wright’s attorney did not have to be relieved.”
The Court of Appeals also agreed that since Wright’s attorney was rightfully allowed to try the case, there was not basis for a continuance.
Gaines said that he believes the court looked at the facts and determined that Wright had received a fair trial, regardless of the trial court’s decision to not grant a continuance.
“The Appeals Court looked at it overall and said he really didn’t suffer based on the evidence,” Gaines said. “He wasn’t harmed by the court’s order to move forward without a continuance.”
Consequently, the trial court’s results – a jury found Wright guilty of manslaughter and of the two lesser offenses and sentenced him to 23 years’ imprisonment – were upheld.
Appellate defender Kathrine Hudgins did not respond to requests for comment. Robert Kittle from the attorney general’s office said that his office does not comment on cases which might still be granted an appeal.
Follow Matthew Chaney on Twitter @SCLWChaney