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After murder trial delay, Hillsborough judge threatens to jail lawyers

TAMPA — A circuit judge erupted Wednesday when he discovered a trial for the first-degree murder of a toddler two years ago faced an indefinite delay after a top lawyer for the Public Defender's Office resigned, got fired and is getting married all at the same time.

Hillsborough Circuit Judge Chet Tharpe said the case was among his top priorities this year and he has laid awake at night concerned about its complexities. It involves Justin Garwacki, 28, and his girlfriend, Kara O'Connell, 23, both charged with first-degree murder and aggravated child abuse.

Prosecutors say Garwacki fatally beat his son, John Taylor Baxley, in August 2010 as punishment for not eating properly. The state says John's death followed weeks of abuse at the hands of Garwacki and O'Connell, including pouring water over the toddler's head in the bathtub to teach him how to hold his breath and lifting him off the ground by his throat.

The couple was to stand trial on Monday, Jan. 7. But at a pretrial hearing Wednesday, Judge Tharpe learned that Garwacki had lost his public defender. In addition, the public defender had not filed all his motions and was missing a witness.

At the center is Greg Hill, one of the Public Defender's Office's top lawyers. Tharpe learned that Hill is no longer with the Public Defender's Office and is about to move to Arizona.

The judge had Hill summoned to court immediately. He said he hoped to ask Hill to stay on the case so the trial could be held on time. Hill showed up minutes later in a T-shirt and jeans, interrupted from packing.

Hill told Tharpe he had expected to be ready for trial, but learned in late December that a key witness would be unavailable. Not notifying the court, Hill said, "was an oversight on my part."

At the same time, Hill said, he had been offered a post with the law school at Arizona State University. He said he gave notice of his resignation to Public Defender Julianne Holt on Dec. 26, hoping to remain a couple of weeks to help with the reassignment of his cases.

But he said Holt terminated him on the spot.

"My computer access and emails were blocked. I was effectively shut down."

On top of all that, Hill said, he was about to do the "unthinkable." He is leaving for China in a few days to get married.

It left Tharpe in the awkward spot of congratulating Hill for his upcoming wedding while chastising him for his lack of "common courtesy."

The judge set a Jan. 10 hearing date to try to figure out when Garwacki and O'Connell will finally go to trial. Hill apologized. Public Defender Holt did not return a call for comment.

Tharpe vowed to severely punish the next attorney who causes a delay in the case.

"Because the stakes are so high in this division, I don't baby lawyers," the judge said.

"The next time, I'm going to contact the Florida Bar and, if I think the violation was intentional, I'm going to put a lawyer in jail."

John Barry can be reached at (813)226-3383 or jbarry@tampabay.com.

After murder trial delay, Hillsborough judge threatens to jail lawyers 01/02/13 [Last modified: Wednesday, January 2, 2013 9:55pm]

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