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Prosecutor Clinton K. Rucker’s failure to pay Bar dues jeopardizes his “masterful” murder conviction of Dionne Baugh, Fulton, Ga., Judge Jerry W. Baxter said Wednesday. Baugh was convicted of murder Tuesday for beating entrepreneur Lance Herndon to death in his Roswell, Ga., mansion Aug. 8, 1996. Though the state lacked fingerprints, a murder weapon and a reliable time of death, Rucker secured a guilty verdict with a timeline, two hairs and a missing computer case. But unknown to the jury while it was deliberating Tuesday afternoon, the case took a bizarre turn. Baxter received a call from a Bar representative around lunch who told him of Rucker’s delinquent dues. The judge called the lawyers into court in mid-afternoon, and Baugh’s lawyer, William G. Quinn III, moved for a mistrial. Rucker, he said, had in effect been practicing law without a license. The prosecutor raced several blocks to the Bar offices before they closed and paid his dues and Baxter set a hearing for 5:30 p.m. But around 5 p.m. the jury returned with verdicts of guilty on counts of murder, felony murder, theft by taking, aggravated assault and credit card fraud. Baxter then postponed the mistrial hearing until Wednesday morning. ‘GIANT APPEALABLE ISSUE’ Following the hearing Wednesday morning, Baxter denied the defense motion for a mistrial, but he told Baugh’s lawyers that Rucker’s oversight gives them “a giant appealable issue.” “This is something the state has given you to appeal on,” he says. The judge explained that since the Georgia Supreme Court is the ultimate arbiter of the Bar rules, it should have the final ruling. Baxter told the lawyers that the state supreme court “has a lot of wise people sitting on it — a lot wiser than I am. They will tell us what this all means.” Quinn says his client has many issues to present to the appeals court: Rucker’s delinquent Bar fees, the sufficiency of the evidence, and hearsay blurted out during trial — which prompted Quinn’s first motion for mistrial. “There’s going to be a lot to talk about [on appeal],” he says. ACTING AS PUBLIC OFFICIAL? During Wednesday’s hearing, Assistant District Attorney Anna Green offered to stipulate that Rucker had failed to pay his dues. The state, she said, planned to argue that Rucker had been acting as a de facto public official under O.C.G.A. Section 45-2-1, and that it didn’t matter whether he had paid his dues. Baxter replied that he wanted to hear how this could have happened, and what Rucker’s exact status was during trial. In support of his motion, Quinn examined two representatives of the state Bar. Membership Director Gayle Baker told the court Rucker had been delinquent in his dues since September 2000. Despite a certified letter, an uncertified letter and several messages left on his voicemail, she says, Rucker never made any effort to pay his dues. That means Rucker violated Bar Rule 1-501, which says, “Upon the failure of a member to pay the license fee by September 1, the member shall cease to be a member in good standing.” On payment, the member is automatically reinstated to good standing. Failure to pay the dues for a year results in termination of membership in the Bar. To be reinstated, a member must pass the state Bar exam again. The Bar’s Deputy General Counsel Robert E. McCormack later explained on direct that failure to pay dues merely means “the member is not in good standing with the Bar.” That doesn’t mean the member is disbarred or suspended, he said. But it does mean he is ineligible to practice law in Georgia until he pays his dues, he said. On cross by Green, Baker said failure to pay Bar dues results in an informal suspension. The state supreme court had not disciplined Rucker, she said, but nevertheless, Rucker was ineligible to practice law. RUCKER: DON’T RECALL NOTICE On the stand, Rucker said that, until Tuesday afternoon, he did not remember having received notice that his dues were delinquent. He wasn’t claiming that he didn’t receive them, he said, simply that he didn’t remember the notices. Rucker said he was swamped with work and “vigorously” preparing the Baugh case in March when the Bar tried to phone him. Baxter seemed amazed. The prosecutor, he said, had memorized minute details from a five-year-old case, and had recited them flawlessly to a jury over a long trial, but he couldn’t remember whether the Bar had contacted him about his dues? “You’re telling me you don’t even remember any of this and you expect me to believe that?” Baxter said, squinting and shaking his head. “I mean, you’re telling me that?” Yes, Rucker replied, adding that the mistake was his alone. “I’m personally embarrassed by this, your honor,” he said. “It will never happen again.” After a cross by Green, in which she established that Rucker had taken an oath in 1995 to become a public official, Quinn rose to examine Rucker again. Baxter cut it off. “We’ve beaten Mr. Rucker enough — not to say he doesn’t deserve it,” he said. The court should not give prosecutors any special treatment that defense lawyers don’t enjoy, Quinn said. “If you let them off the hook on this, you’re telling them they don’t have to pay Bar dues,” he said. Green argued that the state is protected from having official actions overturned for what she called “a minor, administrative infraction.” Rucker was a public official by virtue of his 1995 oath, she said, and he was operating under the authority of the district attorney’s office. The blame for the overdue fees, however, rests entirely with Rucker, she said. “It is Mr. Rucker personally who needs to be held responsible, not the district attorney’s office and not the people who tried this case,” she said. The judge looked perplexed. “Do you think the court should check people’s Bar cards every time they try a case?” he asked. Green responded no. Baxter said he had never seen anything like this in his years as prosecutor and judge. “Just when you thought you’d seen everything, this happens,” he says. “It’s just sort of incomprehensible that things could develop this way.” The judge says Rucker did “an excellent job” trying the case, and called him “an excellent lawyer.” “I feel kind of sorry for him in a way,” he says. But Baxter adds that the prosecutor has no excuse for not keeping up with his dues. “Thousands of other lawyers manage to keep up with theirs,” he says.

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