A Charleston attorney will have to cough up more than $2,000 after postponing a trial he was expected to defend last month.
That defense attorney, Aaron Mayer, was also thrown off the case by the judge in a rare move that court leaders say speaks to a much bigger problem in the court system.
Mayer said he delayed the trial in order to better defend his client, a burglary suspect. The trial had been postponed for more than a year after he asked for several extensions, according to court records.
Circuit Judge Kristi Harrington, however, had enough and decided to punish Mayer instead.
Her move was applauded by 9th Circuit Solicitor Scarlett Wilson, who said it highlights a major issue: trial scheduling, what’s referred to as docketing.
It’s an issue Wilson has been fighting to reform. In March, Wilson wrote a letter to S.C. Supreme Court Chief Justice Jean Toal suggesting her district adopt a system in which judges become more involved in the docket.
Wilson wouldn’t comment specifically on Mayer’s case, but said, “This is Exhibit 1 of how we’re not in control and how we need judicial intervention, which we got in this case.”
Harrington issued the order against Mayer on May 29, court records show. He was representing Bryant Edward Loyal, who had been charged with breaking into a Charleston apartment on the night of May 21, 2010 and stealing a television and PlayStation console, according to an affidavit.
Mayer had been representing him since February 2012. When the case was set for trial in May 2012, already two years after Loyal’s arrest, Mayer asked for an extension to further investigate the DNA testing done on his client, according to court filings.
The case was placed back on the trial docket last April. Mayer asked for another extension, so he could pursue independent DNA testing, records state. A third trial date was scheduled for May, which Mayer again asked to postpone, citing “DNA investigation,” a court exhibit stated.
Mayer told The Post and Courier he was waiting for a judge to authorize the funding for independent DNA testing he wanted to conduct. “The petition is still pending. So, the question becomes: How can someone be ready for trial on a DNA case when the petition for an expert to review the DNA hasn’t been ruled on. That was my issue on it,” he said.
But in her order, Harrington said Mayer “does not possess the required legal knowledge, skill, thoroughness, and preparation required” to represent his client, under the rules of professional conduct. She also ordered Mayer to reimburse the state $2,461, the cost of the plane tickets for the out-of-state witnesses who had planned to appear for trial.
Mayer said everything he’s done was in the best interest of his client. He said it’s the first time a judge has removed him from a case and that he’s asked Harrington to reconsider. The case is now postponed until Loyal gets a new attorney.
After examining the judge’s order, defense attorney Andy Savage said he doesn’t know Mayer, but called his actions discouraging. “It’s insulting to the court and the solicitor, not to mention it was never in his client’s best interest to do what he did. The track record of that case is abysmal,” Savage said.
Wilson said the vast majority of defense attorneys serve their clients and are good stewards of the system, but “there are plenty who are not,” she said. “And defendants themselves know that delay is their friend. Unfortunately, courts are put in difficult situations when, I’m speaking generally, when attorneys fall on their sword and say they’re not prepared. There’s a fine line in figuring out and recognizing who’s causing the delay and why.”
Kevin Brackett, solicitor for the Sixteenth Circuit, which covers York and Union counties, said there are issues with defendants as well, who are honing in on the system’s flaws and scheming ways to postpone their trials.
“A case doesn’t get better with age. Witnesses disappear, memories get fuzzy,” Brackett said.
Just a few weeks ago, Brackett discovered a jail-house phone conversation, which are all recorded, in which a defendant was strategizing how he’d delay his trial, Brackett said. “He’s saying to the guy, ‘I’m going to fire my public defender and hire someone else, so that will buy me time,’” Brackett said.
Both Brackett and Wilson said something has to change because the way the system works now is costing the state time and money. They hope either the state Supreme Court or the Legislature can soon offer a clear guideline for judges in dealing with dockets in order to get cases through the system quicker and more efficiently. Until that happens, Wilson said she hopes to see more actions like Harrington’s.
“I commend her for addressing the situation head-on,” she said.
Reach Natalie Caula at 937-5594 or Twitter.com/ncaula.