Gang roundup strains public defenders

  • By Adam Lynn and Stacey Mulick The News Tribune
  • Monday, February 15, 2010 11:10pm
  • Local NewsNorthwest

TACOMA — Last week’s crackdown on suspected members of the Hilltop Crips street gang has become a headache for Michael Kawamura.

The chief of Pierce County’s Department of Assigned Counsel must find defense lawyers to represent the 32 men charged with a variety of crimes stemming from an 18-month investigation.

All the defendants were declared indigent during their first court appearance. That means they qualify for public defense.

Kawamura said he’s most likely going to need help from outside the county as his staff of more than 60 public defenders might be precluded from representing the men because of potential conflicts of interest.

The trick is finding attorneys who have not represented more than one of the defendants — most of whom already have criminal records — or any witnesses in the case in the past.

“You might have divided loyalties,” Kawamura said. “If a lawyer in this county has been involved with more than one person in this case, they probably can’t participate.”

Kawamura is working to find private attorneys willing to take on the cases. That means time and money, as his office must track down qualified private lawyers and pay them to represent the defendants.

“It’s not inexpensive,” said Kawamura, who declined to guess how much representing the group might cost his office. “Everything that’s done, it’s done 32 times. You do the math, and it adds up.”

Last year, Kawamura farmed out more than 1,400 cases due to conflicts while his staff handled more than 9,300 cases, according to county budget numbers.

Kawamura, Pierce County prosecutors and courts officials also are discussing possible logistical hassles brought on by the sheer number of defendants.

There will be hearings early on where all the defendants might have to appear together. A handful of courtrooms at the County-City Building can accommodate that many defendants, their lawyers, the necessary corrections officers to provide security, and any observers who want to watch.

“That’s why multi-defendant cases are the hardest,” Kawamura said.

County Prosecutor Mark Lindquist said last week that his staff is discussing ways to break the defendants into smaller groups to make the cases more manageable.

He said he also expects many of the cases to be resolved by plea bargains, which will narrow the field as the process moves forward.

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