Attorney Defends Handling of Case
An Oxnard attorney under fire for his representation of a murder defendant denied Monday that he was abusive to his client, unprepared for trial and overwhelmed by the complex case.
Lawyer Joseph O’Neill took the witness stand for a second day in what has turned into an emotionally charged hearing on whether Bridget Callahan should receive a new trial on charges that she aided two skinhead gang members in the 1998 slaying of a teenage girl.
Callahan, 31, was convicted last fall of first-degree murder with special circumstances for her role in the killing of 17-year-old Nichole Hendrix of Ventura. She faces a life prison term without possibility of parole.
But a March 20 sentencing was put on hold to allow attorneys Kay Duffy and James Farley, Callahan’s new lawyers, to present evidence that O’Neill quarreled with his former client and failed to present a defense to the charges.
“Ms. Callahan did not receive effective assistance of counsel in this case,” Duffy argued last week.
State prosecutors say any errors committed by O’Neill were not egregious enough to warrant a new trial. Called as a prosecution witness, O’Neill denied being abusive to Callahan and testified Monday that he tried to portray her as sympathetic to hold back “the tsunami of evidence” against her.
O’Neill acknowledged being worn down by the complicated case and admitted making at least one misrepresentation to the court during one of the three hearings in which Callahan tried to fire him. But he insisted that he did not believe the case was too much for him.
The dispute has placed the lawyers, all associates with the same indigent-defense firm, in an awkward position and led to three days of tense testimony before Ventura County Superior Court Judge Vincent J. O’Neill Jr., who is expected to rule next month.
Duffy and Farley contend that Joseph O’Neill, no relation to the judge, yelled at Callahan, failed to investigate the case, neglected to locate potential defense witnesses and failed to properly cross-examine key prosecution witnesses.
Specifically, Duffy and Farley contend that O’Neill should have investigated whether Callahan failed to stop the killing of Hendrix because she was paralyzed by fear as a result of suffering battered women’s syndrome.
According to trial testimony, Callahan drugged Hendrix and set her up to be kidnapped by skinheads Michael Bridgeford and David Ziesmer in October 1998 amid suspicions that Hendrix had betrayed another gang associate. Hendrix was taken to a Ventura motel, where, according to her statement to investigators, Callahan sat in the motel room while Ziesmer and Bridgeford stabbed Hendrix to death in the bathroom. Callahan admitted helping dispose of the body.
O’Neill acknowledged Monday that he did not explore a battered women’s defense or consult with an expert in the syndrome. He told the judge that after a motion to suppress Callahan’s statement was denied and plea bargain negotiations failed, he decided to pursue a “sympathy” defense.
Farley questioned that decision, given that California jurors are routinely instructed not to let sympathy for defendants influence their verdicts. But O’Neill testified that he believed sympathy was a viable defense and his best option given the evidence against his former client.
According to court testimony, Callahan tried three times to remove O’Neill from the case. Two investigators testified that O’Neill made misrepresentations to the court during those closed-door meetings.
Defense investigator Len Newcomb testified last week that O’Neill was “scattered” during court proceedings and verbally abusive to Callahan, raising his voice and flailing his arms during meetings with her. He said Callahan eventually refused to speak with O’Neill without Newcomb present.
Before testimony got underway last week, Farley stood up in court and stated that the purpose of the hearing was not to malign O’Neill’s reputation. “This is not about whether he is a good or bad lawyer in general,” Farley said. “Every lawyer can blow one.”
But the air of diplomacy that opened the hearing had evaporated by Monday, when O’Neill unleashed a string of accusations at Farley from the witness stand. In response to a question about whether O’Neill had sought help in preparing for trial, the attorney testified that he made arrangements to meet with Farley, a veteran criminal defense lawyer, to seek advice but Farley did not show up.
Farley responded by calling his own office manager, who testified that no such meetings were scheduled in the months before trial.
Meanwhile, a district attorney’s investigator who helped crack the case, Mark Volpei, told the judge last week that he tried unsuccessfully to steer O’Neill in the direction of evidence that tended to help Callahan because he was concerned the jury was not getting a complete picture.
“Our job is to seek the truth,” he testified. “If the truth walks them out the door, so be it.”