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What started as a divorce court bid to release Richard W. Strich from marriage has wrapped him in the chains of Connecticut’s criminal courts. And, for the moment, a family court judge won’t loosen the purse strings to a small fortune that Strich says he needs to hire a top criminal defender. His disintegration started Aug. 20, when his wife Sandra sent him divorce papers. Eight days later, according to police, Strich answered with shotgun blasts. He located his wife at her sister’s home and fired twice, hitting her shoulder. After a wild police chase in downtown Meriden, Conn., Strich held authorities at bay for five hours, threatening to kill himself. As news helicopters circled overhead, SWAT teams assembled, and Strich was eventually anesthetized and taken into custody. Charged with attempted murder and 14 other criminal charges, he is being held in Garner Correctional Institution on $1.5 million bond. Sandra Strich, meanwhile, was hospitalized and released after two days. To hire a criminal defense lawyer, Strich acted through his divorce attorney. John Mager, of Milford, Conn.’s Mager & Mager, asked Milford-Ansonia Superior Court Judge Heidi Winslow to relax the stay that automatically freezes marital assets once a spouse files for divorce. But despite the Striches’ $820,000 in bank deposits and other liquid assets, Winslow declined to authorize $100,000 for expert witnesses and legal fees for Bridgeport, Conn.’s Richard Meehan Jr. (Among its high-profile assignments, Meehan & Meehan is defending Bridgeport mayor Joseph P. Ganim, who’s facing federal corruption charges.) The judge suggested Strich seek help from the public defender’s office, instead. DUE PROCESS VIOLATION? In an Oct. 22 decision, Winslow wrote that the case law only recognizes two exceptions to the automatic stay. One is the conversion of assets to another form, such as the sale of a house to raise cash and prevent foreclosure. The other is the allocation of property to the exclusive use of one spouse. But, Winslow wrote, this case is not like either of those exceptions: “[C]ash for these legal services cannot be characterized as the mere exclusive use of an asset; it would be an irrevocable disposition of that asset,” she reasoned. By statute, it still would be possible for all of the couple’s assets to be allocated to the wife, the judge noted. “While that possibility seems remote, given the size of the estate in this matter, the court simply does not have the information at hand to predetermine the issue.” “The real issue,” Meehan said in an interview, “is the constitutionality of these automatic orders [freezing marital assets] because there’s no due process.” Meehan, who has met with Strich, said he’s researched the matter. “Quite a number of states,” he maintained, “found this to be a due process violation,” when a criminal defendant’s representation was impeded by an automatic asset freeze, imposed without a prior hearing or the opportunity to present arguments. Though Richard Strich contends he’s too well off to qualify for a public defender, Winslow suggested he apply for one. A judge will make a determination of his eligibility, once Strich applies for public defender services, Winslow noted. In family court, Strich’s divorce lawyer said his client may pursue an insanity defense and will need to have expert witnesses at the cost of roughly $20,000 each. OTHER OPTIONS AVAILABLE Hartford criminal defense lawyer Richard R. Brown, of Hartford, Conn.-based Brown, Paindiris & Scott, who is not involved in the case, said a reasonable solution could be found. “The absurd perversion of all this might be that the taxpayers of Connecticut might have to foot the bill for a person who theoretically has access to assets that exceed $800,000,” Brown noted. The husband’s entitlement to that money, however, could be “illusory” once the family court factors in the wife’s medical needs, economic needs and relative fault, Brown said. A criminal defendant, he added, is entitled to competent defense, but not necessarily the counsel of his choice and certainly not the most expensive counsel. Chief Public Defender Gerard A. Smyth said his office is occasionally called upon to represent seemingly wealthy defendants when their assets are tied up. “Woodchipper murderer” and former airline pilot Richard Crafts, for example, was represented by public defenders in his second trial after his ex-wife’s estate had placed civil prejudgment liens on his assets. A private lawyer, Smyth speculated, might be willing to represent Strich on the strength of a promissory note, assuming that the dissolution will eventually allocate some assets to Strich, a former Sikorsky Aircraft employee. But if Smyth’s office were appointed, it wouldn’t necessarily be at taxpayer expense. By statute, it can recoup the cost of its services if a client develops the ability to pay for his or her defense, Smyth noted.

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