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There’s more than one way to skin a cat, goes a saying that seems an apt summation of Atlanta area lawyers’ reaction to news that a Fulton, Ga., prosecutor may have imploded a case by failing to pay his Bar dues. The prosecutor is Clinton K. Rucker, chief senior assistant district attorney, and the case that may get him skinned involves the conviction, late Tuesday afternoon, of Dionne Baugh, who jurors decided had murdered her boyfriend. The problem tainting this prosecution victory is Rucker’s nonpayment of dues, which meant he was no longer in good standing with the Bar. Still, on Wednesday morning, Fulton State Judge Jerry W. Baxter denied a defense motion for a mistrial. Now the case likely is headed for the Georgia Supreme Court. But some local criminal defense lawyers say Baxter could have chosen another path. John R. “Jack” Martin says he thinks the issue is fairly clear: Baxter should have granted a mistrial. “You’re entitled to a licensed defense lawyer,” he says. “But you’re also entitled to a licensed prosecutor in your trial.” If the motion for a mistrial needed to precede the verdict, says Barbara G. Moon, a Jonesboro, Ga., sole practitioner, the judge could have left the jury in its deliberation room, not accepted the verdict and heard the motion anyway. That might not be necessary, according to Walter M. Britt of Chandler & Britt in Buford, Ga. “I think the court can declare a mistrial at any time,” he says. And what of cases Rucker has worked on since September, when his Bar compliance lapsed? Brian Steel of The Steel Law Firm says cases that Rucker tried in that period could be in jeopardy. Moon says even cases that hadn’t made it to trial, but in which Rucker was the only prosecutor, also might be subject to challenge. Britt disagrees, explaining that defense lawyers who didn’t object to Rucker’s status with the Bar before he paid his dues on Tuesday have waived their right to object. Whatever the method, says Moon, “If you’re before the court on a case and you’re not in good standing, then my view is the litigation should be set aside. If I had a case down there against Rucker and he was the only attorney on it, I’d be down there right now trying to challenge it.” Another possible consequence, say Steel and Britt, is an unauthorized practice of law complaint against Rucker. District Attorney Paul L. Howard Jr. says his office tries to ensure its prosecutors are Bar members in good standing. He says office policy is to pay Bar dues for any prosecutor who can’t afford them. “Then he’s covering his butt,” says Moon. “That’s a pretty good policy that he has. The problem is, how can Paul Howard possibly police 100 [assistant] district attorneys?” Howard says he’ll consider establishing an office procedure to check on whether assistant district attorneys are Bar members in good standing. If the lack of that procedure in Rucker’s case means Baugh’s conviction gets set aside, that’s good, says Moon, because it would send a serious message to prosecutors that they’d better stay in compliance with the Bar. “If [criminal defense lawyers] don’t follow the rules,” she says, “see how fast they’ll snatch our license.” Staff reporter Richmond Eustis contributed to this story.

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