Gary Turnbull hadn’t practiced law in California for 20 years before he reactivated his license last October.
Within about a month, he was appointed to defend a man facing the death penalty in the fatal shootings of two men at a bar south of Bakersfield.
Soon, a sordid story of the attorney’s past would resurface.
Decades ago, while representing a woman accused of killing her husband, Turnbull, now 74, had secret sexual relationships with two of her three daughters, eventually having a child with one. Twice he was suspended from practicing law — in 1995 for not paying child support and again in 2004 for not paying bar dues.
Now the American Civil Liberties Union is taking an unusual step of intervening to try to remove him from the death penalty case, arguing that his ethical transgressions and years out of practice make him unfit to take it on.
Turnbull’s appointment, an ACLU attorney said, is just one example of what she sees as a troubling pattern: Problems with how attorneys for indigent clients are appointed and paid are driving higher numbers of death sentences in some Southern California counties.
“Many people mistakenly assume that the defendants charged with the death penalty receive the best lawyering available,” said Cassandra Stubbs, director of the ACLU’s Capital Punishment Project. “In fact, we see all too often the worst kind of lawyering provided to the poor defendants charged with capital crimes.”
“They’re saying from a relationship I had 35 years ago, that I’m unfit. Yeah, well, that’s history and the bar didn’t find it was unethical, immoral, illegal or any conflict,” Turnbull said. “According to court rules, I’m totally qualified.”
In a November declaration requesting to represent the man in the current capital case, Turnbull indicated that he handled more than 100 criminal jury trials and completed 300 hours of death penalty seminars throughout his career. He told The Times that he is now handling two other capital cases.
Turnbull said he inactivated his license because he fell ill with cancer, moved to Canada and didn’t think he’d practice again. He reactivated his license, he said, because he was bored.
The ACLU’s effort to remove Turnbull is the latest twist in the nearly 4-year-old case of Juan Pablo Vega, who is charged with first-degree murder in the shooting deaths of Jorge Zavala and Federico Zuniga Moreno.
Kern County prosecutors allege that Vega walked into an Arvin nightclub in June 2015 and shot three people, killing two and wounding the other, after his girlfriend called him and said they were bothering her and to come take care of it.
Vega’s trial is set for January.
A handful of attorneys were in and out of the case before a judge appointed Keith Rutman, a San Diego lawyer, to represent Vega in October 2017 because the Indigent Defense Program was unable to find a qualified attorney within the county.
The Indigent Defense Program, run by the Kern County Bar Assn., contracts with Kern County to represent defendants when the public defender’s office has a conflict or otherwise cannot. The program director, Henry Marquez, did not return multiple requests for comment.
As Rutman began building his defense, he needed to hire mitigation investigators to dig into Vega’s upbringing in Mexico to find out what led him to this point, he said in a court filing.
Rutman requested more funding to send investigators to Culiacan, in the Mexican state of Sinaloa, because the county’s rate to pay them was so low — $42 an hour — that he couldn’t find qualified people to take on the dangerous assignment, he said in court filings.
Vega, he wrote, “is facing disparate treatment” from those facing the death penalty in other California counties where there is enough funding for mitigation investigators.
“The painful life stories of capital defendants are an important part of the mitigation evidence defense counsel are duty-bound to investigate and present,” the filing states.
After Rutman told the Indigent Defense Program director about the developments, he was told another attorney would take over.
That turned out to be Turnbull.
Joe Hughes, vice president of the bar association’s board of directors, said Rutman was not approved to be the lead attorney on capital cases and can only serve as second chair. He did not say why.
Stubbs, of the ACLU, filed a declaration saying that an email exchange with the Indigent Defense Program director “suggested possible retaliation against Mr. Rutman for his advocacy” of Vega in securing additional funds. She also wrote that someone who hasn’t practiced law for 20 years and “has not maintained regular capital trainings” is unqualified to represent clients in death penalty cases.
In a motion to clarify counsel, Rutman points to Turnbull’s history, saying it raises “serious questions” about his fitness to serve.
“Turnbull engaged in such grave misconduct — having sexual relations with his client’s two daughters — that the judge hearing the post-conviction case … suggested he intended to refer the case” to the State Bar of California, the motion says.
It’s unclear if the bar opened an investigation, but it does not appear from online records that Turnbull was disciplined.
“These were young women who had lost their father, their mother was in jail for having killed their father. He steps in, he’s a predator,” said Linda Starr, an attorney who represented the mother, Glenda Crosley, after her conviction.
“We can’t know what he didn’t do because he was protecting his relationships more than his client,” Starr said.
Turnbull said there was no conflict, describing one of the relationships as “just two people, both alone, going through divorces.” He did not go into detail about the second one.
“What was unethical about it?” Turnbull said. “You’re going to rehash something from 35 years ago? I can’t believe it.”
Turnbull and Rutman appeared in a Bakersfield courtroom on Thursday, each one separately approaching and consulting with Vega, who was in a brown jail uniform, his wrists shackled to a chain around his waist.
Kern County Superior Court Judge John R. Brownlee postponed the scheduled hearing to clarify counsel to May because the court’s presiding judge was out of town.
“We have a skeleton crew this week,” Brownlee said, adding that the matter should be handled by the presiding judge since it “has the potential to fundamentally change how we do business with the IDP.”