Thank you for sharing!

Your article was successfully shared with the contacts you provided.
If you don’t think 800 hours of pro bono work in one year is impressive, ask JoNell Thomas about her honeymoon. In November, the Las Vegas solo practitioner spent two days of her weeklong wedding trip to Hawaii sorting through property records to help her client’s defense. Her husband, a photographer, should have known what he was in for. They met when he took her picture for a newspaper story on her pro bono representation of John Mazzan. Mazzan, a Reno, Nev., hairdresser, was convicted in 1979 of first-degree murder. He was sentenced to death for the murder of Richard Minor, a drug dealer and the son of a Nevada justice of the peace. Freed by Thomas’ work 19 months ago, he faces a retrial, this time for two killings. Once again she is devoting much of her professional life to Mazzan, now 54. Prosecutors say that Mazzan stabbed Minor and took money and drugs from his home. They have also accused him of stabbing Minor’s ex-girlfriend, a prostitute, whose body was found a year later near the Mustang Ranch where she worked. Mazzan, a Vietnam-era Navy veteran, was a friend of Minor. Mazzan says that he was asleep behind the couch when Minor was killed. He says that he and Minor were using marijuana and cocaine that night while making tapes and that when his car wouldn’t start, he spent the night. Later that night, Mazzan says, two men entered the house, scuffled with Minor and killed him. Mazzan claimed he fled fearing the two men and that the police would arrest him for his drug use. IN SINCE 1997 Thomas is a 35-year-old criminal defense attorney who served last year as president of the Nevada Attorneys for Criminal Justice, the statewide defense attorney’s bar. She entered the case in 1997 after Mazzan had made several unsuccessful appeals. Thomas heard about the case from Tim O’Toole, a friend at the public defender’s office who was representing Mazzan. She says the fact that O’Toole was convinced of Mazzan’s innocence persuaded her to become involved. Once she’d read the file, she was convinced as well. “It seemed out of character for Mazzan to have done this,” she says. “He had no prior history, no motive and the evidence that was withheld by the prosecutors made it a very compelling case,” Thomas says. Critical to proving Mazzan’s innocence was evidence uncovered in 1996 by an investigator for the public defender’s office. He subpoenaed the police file in Mazzan’s case and discovered that police investigators had uncovered information that pointed to other suspects. The police reports said that two dealers who were under investigation by the Drug Enforcement Agency had supplied Minor with drugs. Minor owed them a large debt and he had told his sister that he was afraid because of his drug dealing. Minor had recently traveled to Hawaii with the dealers and was expecting them to come to town around the time he was killed. As a result of the information, O’Toole filed for habeas relief in the district court. Rebuffed, he appealed to the state supreme court. When O’Toole left the public defender’s office in 1997, Thomas, whose practice is principally as a court-appointed lawyer handling death penalty cases, took on the case. “It truly appeared that an innocent man was on death row,” Thomas says. Putting in 15- and 16-hour days during the week and 10- and 12-hour days on the weekends, Thomas wrote the appeal brief and argued before the court. In January 2000, her work paid off. In a strongly worded opinion, the Nevada Supreme Court reversed Mazzan’s conviction. It found that prosecutors had violated Mazzan’s rights by withholding police reports and other evidence that suggested that the drug dealers from out of state were behind the murder. During trial court proceedings after the ruling, prosecutors tried to remove Thomas and her co-counsel, Las Vegas lawyer Robert Langford, from the case. They argued that Mazzan should be given a state public defender because he was indigent, rather than be permitted to have pro bono representation that would cost the county fees and costs. The judge didn’t think that the lawyers who’d won an appeal by uncovering prosecutorial misconduct should be dismissed. Thomas and Langford remained as counsel. In May 2000, Mazzan was free on bail after 20 years on death row. “The most rewarding part of the case was the first day Jack was released,” Thomas says. “Walking out of the jail with him was really wonderful.” Mazzan began working as a cab driver in Reno. But his freedom was short-lived. In September, Mazzan was jailed again because prosecutors recharged him for Minor’s death and for the death of April Barber, Minor’s ex-girlfriend. Thomas, who is five months pregnant, is passing the torch to Langford, of Langford & Associates, who shares a building with her. Langford will try the case this spring. He describes Thomas as a dogged advocate whose appellate experience gives her more knowledge of the law than anyone else in the courtroom. “She is reserved, unless you piss her off,” Langford says. “Then she’s as aggressive as they come.” He says her response when angered is to “hit the computer to do more research for better motions.” COLD TRAILS Thomas says that the most difficult aspect of her representation of Mazzan has been in trying to investigate a case that’s more than 22 years old. “Numerous witnesses are deceased, and it’s impossible to find records or people from 1979,” she says. Her search for information in Hawaii on property records where Minor and his alleged drug suppliers stayed, for example, turned up nothing. “The old records aren’t computerized at all,” Thomas says. “So we had to do the search by plot number, not name, and we still haven’t found the records we needed.” Through last year Thomas had donated at least 2,500 hours to Mazzan. While the self-effacing Thomas admits that she’s turned down work to do this case for free, that doesn’t trouble her. “The money, it’s not what I’m in this for,” she says. Gary Peck, the executive director of the Nevada American Civil Liberties Union, praises Thomas for her commitment. “Her professional life is guided by a deep and passionate commitment to social justice, decency and fairness,” he says. Despite Mazzan’s case, Peck says, Thomas spends 10 to 15 hours per week volunteering for the ACLU and other groups. Thomas will be facing a determined prosecution. In an interview, the Washoe County district attorney trying the case, Tom Barb, says his office is convinced of Mazzan’s guilt and that the two men named in the supreme court brief are unconnected to Minor’s death. Prosecutors say new DNA evidence of Barber’s blood on Mazzan’s shoes implicates Mazzan in both victims’ deaths. Thomas is moving to strike the evidence on the ground that the shoes, which have been stored in a box for two decades with other items, including articles of Barber’s clothing, is tainted. Whatever the outcome of the DNA evidence’s admissibility, Thomas says she is optimistic about the upcoming trial, which she expects to be in March or April. “We are very hopeful about prevailing for the same reasons that made me get into the case in the beginning,” she says. “There’s no motive here, no reason. It doesn’t make sense for Mazzan to be the person who did it.”

This content has been archived. It is available through our partners, LexisNexis® and Bloomberg Law.

To view this content, please continue to their sites.

Not a Lexis Advance® Subscriber?
Subscribe Now

Not a Bloomberg Law Subscriber?
Subscribe Now

Why am I seeing this?

LexisNexis® and Bloomberg Law are third party online distributors of the broad collection of current and archived versions of ALM's legal news publications. LexisNexis® and Bloomberg Law customers are able to access and use ALM's content, including content from the National Law Journal, The American Lawyer, Legaltech News, The New York Law Journal, and Corporate Counsel, as well as other sources of legal information.

For questions call 1-877-256-2472 or contact us at [email protected]

Reprints & Licensing
Mentioned in a Law.com story?

License our industry-leading legal content to extend your thought leadership and build your brand.


ALM Legal Publication Newsletters

Sign Up Today and Never Miss Another Story.

As part of your digital membership, you can sign up for an unlimited number of a wide range of complimentary newsletters. Visit your My Account page to make your selections. Get the timely legal news and critical analysis you cannot afford to miss. Tailored just for you. In your inbox. Every day.

Copyright © 2021 ALM Media Properties, LLC. All Rights Reserved.