The California Supreme Court ruled (pdf) 5-2 today that an attorney who pocketed $71,000 of the $80,000 he was given to mount a death penalty defense did not have a conflict of interest so great as to warrant a reversal of his client’s death sentence.
Attorney Rodolfo “Rudy” Petilla received the money as part of a standard flat-fee arrangement that Fresno County had for private defense attorneys working on death penalty cases. The amount was so high because the case of Keith Zon Doolin — accused of killing two prostitutes and trying to kill four more — was considered a “category 3” matter, or one that involves multiple victims or defendants and may be complicated because of extremely thorny legal questions or media interest.
The high court majority, in a ruling by Justice Carol Corrigan, said Doolin simply couldn’t show that the potential for Petilla to spend as little as possible on the defense resulted in reversal-warranting problems in the case:
“Defendant accurately argues that under the agreement his lawyer could maximize his own compensation by cutting expenses for investigative and expert services. This theoretical possibility, however, is qualitatively no different from other flat fee arrangements that have been held acceptable."
But Justice Joyce Kennard was not having any of it. In dissent she (and Justice Kathryn Mickle Werdegar) took both Petilla and Fresno County to task for the fee arrangement and said the death sentence should be reversed. Kennard noted that Doolin’s habeas petition, which is still pending before the high court, alleges that Petilla incurred huge gambling debts while representing the defendant, and that the State Bar suspended him in 2001.
Petilla and Fresno get a Kennard-ing after the jump.
Petilla, who could not be reached for comment Monday, resigned from the Bar in 2004. His Bar profile backs up the claim about his penchant for playing the odds:
“When Petilla filed for bankruptcy, he attempted to discharge more than $57,000 in debt, most of it the result of gambling. He said the debt was incurred as part of a ‘free fall’ at Nevada blackjack tables between late May and early July 1994. The review department described the free fall as ‘a losing streak during which he lost tens of thousands of dollars.’”
Doolin was arrested in October 1995 and convicted in June of the following year.
Petilla’s “substandard” defense, Kennard wrote, was particularly on display during the penalty phase of Doolin’s trial, when the attorney didn't put on a single witness — other than a psychologist — to testify about Doolin’s positive attributes. Doolin had given him a list of 16 people who could have possibly testified, and Petilla didn’t interview any of them. Kennard wrote:
“Defense counsel’s conflict of interest adversely affected the entire penalty phase, and it was the government (Fresno County), that, through its fee arrangement, created the conflict. … Fresno County’s fee arrangement with counsel did adversely affect his representation at the penalty phase of trial, thus requiring reversal of the judgment of death.”
For the record, as mentioned in a footnote with the majority opinion, Fresno County no longer lets defense attorneys pocket their unused defense allowances, as of Jan. 1, 2004. Apparently it only took them 10 years to realize the arrangements might be a little problematic.
— Jessie Seyfer