LARGO — A circuit judge gave a tongue-lashing to state defense attorneys on Wednesday, after she was forced to postpone a murder trial because of a legal problem she was made aware of at the last minute.
"It's absolutely outrageous that we're here today, with all these families, and all this tragedy, and this is what is happening,'' Pinellas-Pasco Circuit Judge Chris Helinger said. "It's unacceptable."
She was expecting to preside over the murder trial of Dontavious Sparrow and Hector Williams Pena, accused of gunning down 19-year-old Marquise Pennywell in 2009 outside the Snax food mart in St. Petersburg. Sparrow and Pena also are facing four attempted-murder charges in connection with the shooting.
But a problem cropped up Wednesday morning, just before prosecutors were scheduled to make opening statements.
Deven Pennywell, 19, the murder victim's brother, said it was "devastating, miserable, heartbreaking" to get emotionally prepared for the murder trial, only to discover it was being called off.
"That Pena guy is quick to pull a trigger, but the court is not quick to try him. It's crazy," Pennywell said.
Attorneys from the state's Office of Regional Counsel told Helinger they discovered a conflict of interest — they were not only representing Sparrow, but they previously represented Kenny Baker, one of the men Sparrow is accused of trying to kill.
Helinger sounded incredulous that the problem did not come to light until this week, after the court already spent all Tuesday picking a jury. After discussing the matter with lawyers in the courtroom, but without jurors present, she concluded the case could not go forward this week. She then called jurors back into the courtroom to explain why they would be sent home early.
"I don't know whether you all will be glad or frustrated or just hate the court system, but this case cannot be tried," Helinger said.
She told jurors the regional counsel's office "just discovered this morning — this case has been pending two years — that their office represents one of the alleged victims of the attempted murder. So therefore, because their office represents this person or used to, there's a conflict. Because the same lawyer can't represent, obviously, the victim and somebody accused."
She told jurors "every criminal defendant has an absolute right to have conflict-free counsel. It's part of our system."
She called the delay "unacceptable. It shouldn't be that way. There is a courtroom full of family members of Marquise Pennywell, the victim. On this side, there's Mr. Sparrow's and Mr. Pena's family. … Basically the court system has wasted a whole day and several hours the next morning."
She apologized and asked if any jurors had questions. None did.
The state's Office of Regional Conflict Counsel employs defense attorneys who take cases that cannot be handled by the Public Defender's Office because of conflicts of interest. The Legislature created the office partly to reduce the amount the state spent on court-appointed attorneys.
Brian Pingor, who leads the office's Pinellas criminal attorneys, said at one point he was representing Sparrow, and a hearing was scheduled on the potential conflict of interest. But the case was later assigned to a different attorney, who apparently did not know about the conflict.
Pingor said that even before this problem came to light, he implemented procedures designed to cut down on such problems. After becoming the supervisor for Pinellas cases on Jan. 1, Pingor said, he began a policy of not reassigning cases from one attorney to another. Also, he said the office is continuing to use software designed to alert attorneys automatically of conflicts of interest.
A new trial date will be set later.
Curtis Krueger can be reached at (727) 893-8232 or [email protected]