Grant County in Washington has settled an exceptionally disturbing case involving false allegations of child abuse, allegedly ineffective representation by a public defender (later disbarred), and the holding of an innocent man for seven months after allegations were disproved. The $250,000 with Felipe Vargas seems quite modest given the abuse that he encountered in Grant County, which seems to maintain a criminal justice system on a model from the Thirteenth Century.
On November 5, 2003, Vargas went to dinner with his girlfriend. When they returned they found a note saying that her girls had been taken to the police station. When they arrived, Vargas was arrested for child molestation in first degree, child molestation in the second degree and indecent liberties.
The charges were completely false. The girls soon admitted that they did like Vargas staying at the house and a friend suggested by the allegations to get rid of him.
One of the girls immediately told the true story to her mother and to the police. Nevertheless, the police continued hold Vargas for seven months after the recantation. He was represented by three lawyers, including Thomas Earl, who was later disbarred. Earl never met with Vargas outside of the courtroom. Earl was handling 550 criminal cases a year and reportedly spending 30 minutes with each client. The county knew of the problem but did nothing.
Vargas is continuing his lawsuit against Earl.
Earl collected a huge amount of money by taking so many cases under the public defender system of the county.
According to one article:
During 18 years as a public defender, Earl’s annual pay for court-appointed work climbed from $40,000 to $80,000 to $120,000 to $156,000 to a large slice of $500,000 — the amount of his public-defense contract. How large a slice isn’t public record, but two years ago Earl retained about $255,000 after paying other public defenders, according to financial figures provided by those attorneys.
Earl does not appear to be the only problem here. The County officials clearly did not seem bothered by the arrangement, even after the allegations were raised against Earl. In my view, this settlement is too small by at least half. It was a settlement with the insurance company and will have reduced by attorney fees to offer a fraction of the damage caused to Vargas.
This is not the only such allegation against Earl. Consider the following account:
In the early 1990s, Thomas J. Earl worked as a fixed-fee contract attorney for indigent clients in Grant County. Tom was no paragon of virtue as the case of Patrick Hurley will attest.
In 1993, Hurley was arrested and charged with a sex crime. On the first day of his trial, Hurley sat at the defense table with Tom Earl, his court-appointed public defender.
“There was nothing but a blank piece of paper at the table,” Hurley recalled. When he demanded an explanation for the seeming lack of pre-trial preparation, Tom took Hurley aside and told him he could avoid prison time if he could come up with $10,000.
Outraged, Hurley asked the court to appoint another attorney to defend him. The judge refused. Hurley pleaded not guilty, he was convicted and sentenced to 9-1/2 years in prison.
Three years later, Hurley’s new lawyer appealed. The victim admitted she had fabricated the allegations, the conviction was vacated, and Hurley was released. The high cost of Hurley’s free defense? Three years in prison.
These fixed fee contracts often go to the lowest bidders and can create some perverse incentives. It is the legal version of the recent case of a sheriff being able to pocket any money that he saves from the food allowance of prisoners.