Removal of Lawyer for Powell Asked : King case: Judge studies request to force withdrawal of attorney, who is accused of conflict of interest by other defense counsel.
Lawyers for two of the Los Angeles police officers charged with violating Rodney G. King’s civil rights tried to force the removal of another defense attorney Monday, arguing that he has a conflict of interest and should not be allowed to continue on the case.
Although U.S. District Judge John G. Davies did not decide the issue Monday, his comments from the bench suggested that he is reluctant to force lawyer Michael P. Stone to withdraw from representing Officer Laurence M. Powell.
Davies carefully questioned Ira Salzman, who represents Sgt. Stacey C. Koon, and asked him to produce evidence that Stone received confidential information regarding Koon that might become an issue at trial. Salzman has pressed the conflict-of-interest issue on the grounds that Stone’s law partner, Thomas J. Feeley, represents Koon in a related civil case, and therefore Stone may have had access to attorney-client information regarding Koon.
Salzman did not present any such evidence in open court, but he and Koon met privately with the judge for several minutes near the conclusion of the hourlong hearing. After that meeting, Davies announced that he would consider the matter further. He did not indicate when he would rule, but lawyers speculated that it would probably be in the next several days.
Davies called the conflict issue “unusual and maybe unique,” in that it pits defense lawyers against one another, rather than against the prosecution. That is a reflection of a deep antagonism between Stone on one side and Salzman and Harland W. Braun, who represents Theodore J. Briseno, on the other. Lawyers for the fourth defendant, Timothy E. Wind, have not challenged Stone’s right to represent Powell.
As a result, Davies is being forced to weigh Powell’s right to an attorney of his choice against Koon’s right to have a conflict-free legal defense. The judge’s ruling also is being closely watched by prosecutors because removing Stone from the case could force a long delay in the trial, which is scheduled to begin Feb. 2.
Although Braun and Salzman will not discuss their reasons in detail, one issue dividing the attorneys appears to be Stone’s reported handling of a confidential prosecution document that was mailed to him in August. Stone has never publicly acknowledged receiving that memo, but a sealed declaration that he filed with the court refers to it, and acknowledges that it is the source of tension within the defense camp.
“One item which has been mentioned in court is the matter of the receipt by me of confidential papers, previously addressed by this court in a confidential setting,” Stone wrote in that declaration, which was obtained by The Times last week. “While other lawyers may question the wisdom of my handling of that affair, and indeed they have, I do not see that a conflict is thereby created.”
In addition to Stone’s reported handling of the prosecution memo, Braun and Salzman have challenged his position regarding the introduction of evidence during the trial. In particular, Stone has objected to certain kinds of expert testimony, and Salzman says that if Stone gets his way on that matter, it could hurt Koon’s defense.
Stone disagreed, saying that Salzman and others have misrepresented the implications of his position on that issue. Aside from that comment, Stone did not speak at length during Monday’s session, merely answering a few questions posed to him by Judge Davies.
In his remarks, Davies acknowledged that there were problems raised by Feeley’s representing Koon at the same time Stone is working for Powell. But Davies appeared reluctant to remove Stone, who has represented Powell since the incident nearly two years ago.
Outside of court, Powell said it would be an injustice to force him to switch lawyers at this late date. “We’ve developed our defense, day in and day out,” he said. “To have to change in midstream would really set back my case.”
Davies suggested he might force the firm of Stone and Feeley to withdraw from the civil case but leave Stone to represent Powell in the criminal matter.
Salzman, however, responded that removing Feeley from that case would not solve the problem. Koon already could have confided attorney-client information to Feeley, and if that information were ever shared with Stone, it could create a conflict-of-interest problem, whether or not Feeley continues to represent Koon in the civil case, Salzman added.
The potential conflicts are so severe, Salzman said, that if Stone is allowed to continue with the criminal case, Salzman intends to object to allowing Stone to question any of the witnesses who testify on behalf of Koon.
Braun agreed that firing Feeley from the civil case would not solve the problem. He called it a “red herring,” offered by prosecutors to defuse the conflict issue.
“It may be a red herring, but it’s a very interesting question,” Davies responded.
Davies also ruled that prosecutors had not been tainted by statements three of the four officers made to LAPD internal affairs investigators. The statements, which the officers had to make or risk being fired, may not be used against them for legal purposes. The defense argued that prosecutors obtained the statements during searches or read about them in newspapers, and therefore the investigation was suspect.
But government lawyers outlined rigorous methods for ensuring that none of the statements were reviewed by the prosecution team. Separate lawyers pre-screened all witnesses and information, prosecutors said, preventing the prosecution team from receiving any material gathered from a compelled statement.
After hearing from several witnesses, Davies ruled that the prosecution was not tainted.
While the lawyers wrestle with pretrial issues, court officers are moving ahead with the delicate task of finding jurors for the case, and they are proceeding on the assumption that the trial will begin on schedule. Davies told lawyers that 4,482 letters were sent to potential jurors last month.
Although the letters do not specify which trial the potential jurors are being considered for, they say inform recipients that “the jury selected for this important trial will be sequestered” and that the case is expected to last approximately about eight weeks.