Porn allegations rock appellate defender commission

The Detroit Free Press has a stunning story this morning about the former chief of the State Appellate Defender Office, and a delay in investigating the events that may have led to his abrupt decision to retire from SADO, where he had worked for some four decades.

The Freep alleges that appellate defender commission delayed turning over to authorities evidence of questionable, and possibly illegal, activities involving its former director James Neuhard, and evidence of pornography allegedly found on the computer that he used until his abrupt retirement in January 2011.

According to Michigan Supreme Court spokeswoman Marcia McBrien, the first anyone at the Supreme Court heard of the allegations was in August of 2011.

Cooley Law School dean and appellate commission board member “John Nussbaumer contacted [Michigan Supreme Court General Counsel] Matthew Schneider.”

Nussbaumer told Schneider that staffers had found evidence of pornographic web surfing on Neuhard’s computer late in 2010 or early in 2011. Neuhard resigned on Jan. 3, 2011.

McBrien said that the computer was turned over to federal law enforcement authorities at that time.

“They had uncovered sites that were suspected child pornography,” she said.

Michigan Chief Justice Robert Young Jr. was informed of the allegations right away, and “expressed outrage that there was a delay for eight months and nothing concrete had happened,” McBrien said.

The Freep story stated that part of the delay was because the commissioner’s former chairman Donald Martin, who said in January 2011 that he would handle the matter, was diagnosed with leukemia early in 2011. By the time Nussbaumer became chairman and learned that Martin had not contacted law enforcement authorities, it was June.

Wayne County Prosecutor Kym Worthy’s office issued a statement: “Prosecutor Worthy was made aware of the allegations approximately a month and a half ago.” Her office can’t comment because there is an ongoing investigation. No determination has been made on whether criminal charges will be filed.

Neuhard was named Michigan Lawyers Weekly’s 2009 Lawyer of the Year.

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Creating a permanent criminal caste

I spoke to James R. Neuhard, director of the State Appellate Defender Office in Detroit, about his upcoming trip to Washington D.C.

He and other Michigan lawyers who are involved in public defense will join representatives from around the country at the Department of Justice National Symposium on Indigent Defense Thursday and Friday.

I asked Neuhard: Where are we now, in terms of our state’s efforts (or lack of effort) to reform the way we represent the indigent accused?

His answer was a mixed bag. While leaders in this issue, including Neuhard and the Michigan Campaign for Justice, as well as dozens of other lawyers I have spoken to about this topic, are making strides in starting the statewide dialogue, real action or movement in any positive direction is just not likely to happen soon.

“Everyone thinks that if economic times were better it would an easier problem to solve,” said Neuhard, who has advocated for a state-funded defense system, rather than letting each county try to manage on its own. “But when times were better, things got worse. We’re creating a permanent criminal caste in Michigan.”

County funding is often inadequate. See yesterday’s story in the Herald Palladium about Berrien County’s struggle.

A state-funded system should include money for lawyer training, limit caseloads, and pay a fair rate for the services provided, he added. “Anything less than a state-funded defense system is just short-sighted,” Neuhard said. “It’s just institutionalizing an already bad system.”