State Bar of California seeks to discipline L.A. County deputy public defender

The State Bar of California has recommended a 30-day suspension for an L.A. County deputy public defender, concluding that she abandoned her client just before he faced trial on a molestation charge in Compton court.

Delia Metoyer’s abandonment “casts a pall of doubt” over whether her former client — a man accused of sexually molesting a child — “was fairly served by the system,” wrote Donald F. Miles, a judge of the State Bar Court of California.

A phone call and email to Metoyer, a veteran attorney based out of the public defender’s Compton office, weren’t immediately returned, and her attorney, James Ham, declined to comment, referring to it as a “pending case.”

The public defender’s office also declined to comment. But in February, then-Acting Public Defender Kelly Emling sent a letter to the Board of Supervisors requesting that the county cover the cost of defending Metoyer during the State Bar proceedings. (The letter didn’t name Metoyer, but referred to a deputy public defender assigned to the Compton case she handled.)

“My review,” Emling wrote, “reveals no indication that the deputy public defender acted in bad faith or with actual malice.”

The public defender’s office is a county agency whose attorneys are appointed by the court to represent indigent defendants in criminal cases.

According to a timeline of the case laid out in Miles’ decision, Metoyer had back pain the week before one of her clients, Matiwos Ghebrehiwot, had his trial scheduled in January 15, 2015, and she set up an MRI scan for Jan. 16, 2015.

But she did not mention the scan until the day before her appointment, Miles wrote, when Metoyer and the prosecutor on the sexual molestation case met in chambers with the trial judge to discuss logistics. After the prosecutor mentioned calling Ghebrehiwot’s alleged victim — a 7-year-old girl — to testify the next day, Metoyer told the judge she had a doctor’s appointment. After the judge told her to reschedule, the deputy public defender accused the judge of being “cruel” and started “whimpering,” according to Miles’ decision, which was filed last month.

The trial judge asked to move the conversation into the courtroom, where a court reporter could keep a transcript of the discussion, but Metoyer first asked to use the judge’s private bathroom. After about 10 minutes, the judge sent staff to check on her. Metoyer had sneaked out of the bathroom, Miles wrote, and used a different courtroom to return to her office without detection.

The attorney then met with her boss — who didn’t know Metoyer was supposed to be in court — and the boss called the judge, who agreed to let Metoyer go to her appointment the next day, but asked that she return to the courtroom immediately, Miles wrote. Metoyer refused, leaving to go to the doctor, and was immediately removed from the case, according to Miles’ decision. At a sanctions hearing, the trial judge found that the attorney had violated a court order and abandoned her client. Metoyer unsuccessfully appealed.

Early on, Ghebrehiwot — who was unwilling to register as a sex offender — hadn’t been interested in a plea, but Miles wrote that after Metoyer “abandoned” him, he agreed to a deal. According to L.A. County court records, Ghebrehiwot pleaded no contest to committing a lewd or lascivious act with a child under the age of 14. He was sentenced to six years in prison.

Miles wrote that while it was beyond his ability to determine whether the plea was a fair resolution, the attorney’s “abandonment of her client at trial casts a pall of doubt over both the outcome and whether Ghebrehiwot was fairly served by the system.”

Miles noted in his decision that Metoyer had no prior record of discipline since she was admitted to practice law in California in 2000 and presented the court with evidence from four lawyers and a former client detailing her “fine qualities as an attorney.” But in recommending that she be suspended from practicing law for 30 days, Miles also noted that Metoyer failed to show any realistic remorse and said she’d committed “egregious and inexcusable violations” that caused “real harm to the administration of justice.”

The California Supreme Court has yet to decide whether to approve the disciplinary recommendation.

marisa.gerber@latimes.com

For more news from the Los Angeles County courts, follow me on Twitter: @marisagerber

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