For nearly two years, Gene Newland told a judge that he could not afford a private attorney to represent him following a 2007 arrest for sexual assault and risk of injury to a minor. "I'm trying to come up with the money," he said in one courtroom appearance. "I'm barely making ends meet as it is right now. Believe me, if I could afford a lawyer, I would."
Newland had been denied access to a public defender in Danielson because, someone decided, he had too many assets. He owned a house and worked two jobs, though he lost one of them after he was charged with the crime.
Newland, who maintains his innocence, eventually represented himself at a 2009 trial, was convicted by a jury and sentenced to 10 years behind bars. He believes that if he had been represented by a lawyer, his fate may have been much different.
Now a firm known best for its work in DUI cases has won Newland a new trial. And as the legal community marks the 50th anniversary of Gideon v. Wainwright, which guaranteed indigent defendants the right to counsel, the firm's partners are wondering whether there are others who have been convicted in Connecticut because they have been mistakenly denied public defender services.
"When we first got the file, I was appalled that a poor person could be convicted of such serious charges without a lawyer, especially in Connecticut with such a fine tradition of legal services for the indigent," said one of Newland's lawyers, Jim Ruane, the senior partner for Ruane Attorneys, which has offices in Shelton, Hamden and Wethersfield. "I never thought our state system would allow a person to fall through the cracks like what happened in this case."
Newland's strange tale began in May 2007 following his arrest. At his arraignment in the Windham Judicial District, he was represented by a public defender at his bond hearing. Bail was set at $10,000. A friend paid it.
By June 2007, Newland found out he was ineligible for any further public defender's services. How was he informed? Reportedly, he was handed a post-it note by a prosecutor who had received the note from the public defender's office in Danielson.
Ray Canning, who was in charge of the publice defender's office at the Danielson courthouse and has since retired, was ultimately responsible for the decision. Canning would inquire as to how much a person earned a week and whether they had other assets. Newland was informed that since he owned property, he was not eligible.
But Jay Ruane, the other partner in the family law firm, said the property has been in foreclosure for years.
Superior Court Judge Antonio Robaina presided over the criminal case. According to Jay Ruane, neither Robaina nor anyone from the state's attorney's office or public defender's office told Newland that he could appeal the decision that denied him free legal help.
When Robaina asked Newland if he was sure he wanted to waive his right to an attorney before proceeding to trial, Newland replied: "I have no other choice." He then stated that he had neither the training or skill to represent himself. He acknowledged that he had been arrested 23 months earlier, and he knew that he had to be tried sometime.
Newland said that in seeking representation, he had contacted law schools, colleges and legal aid groups in the state, but they all would "hang up on him" as soon as they heard what the charges were.
The trial was held, Newland was convicted and he did not appeal. He did say at sentencing, however, that he believed he had been "wrongly denied counsel."
In 2010, the court appointed Jay Ruane to represent Newland in his habeas petition. Ruane's firm bills itself as focusing on DUI, drug possession, domestic violence and juvenile cases, but Ruane says he also has experience as a court-appointed special public defender. In this case, Ruane filed a habeas appeal based on the grounds that the trial court's questioning of Newland was insufficient to establish a knowing and voluntary waiver of his right to counsel.
Ruane also targeted the decision by the public defender's office to deny Newland representation. He told Tolland Judge Susan Cobb, who presided over the habeas case, that Newland was earning $350 a week at the time of his criminal trial, had no funds in the bank and that he was unable to make payments on his $168,000 mortgage.
Canning, who testified at the December 2012 hearing, said he had no recollecton of Newland's case, but acknowledged that the process for determining defendants' eligibility for public defender services was fairly informal. He also said someone should have told Newland he could appeal the decision.
The state's deputy chief public defender, Brian Carlow, also testified.
Carlow said the procedure for determining public defender eligibility in Danielson at that time was flawed. Carlow said Newland should have easily met the criteria for a public defender, especially since a case of that magnitude would require paying a private attorney a sizable fee. Carlow further said owning property was not an immediate disqualification for public defender services, especially since, in this case, the equity was limited, not readily accessible and the property was in foreclosure.
In a June 10 opinion, Judge Cobb wrote that the state had unequivocally violated Newland's constitutional right to an attorney and reversed his conviction. She ruled that he had not voluntarily waived his right to counsel.
"The Danielson public defender's office erroneously determined that the petitioner was not entitled to the legal services of the public defender's office because he owned real property," wrote Cobb. "In this case, the court finds that [Newland] did not want to represent himself in his criminal trial but rather desperately wanted to have counsel represent him."
Supervisory Assistant State's Attorney Jo Anne Sulik is appealing Cobb's decision to wipe out Newland's conviction and hold a new trial. Sulik wants a new habeas trial. Her view is the initial habeaus trial was supposed to focus on whether Judge Robaina adequately questioned Newland about his willingness to represent himself, and not on the circumstances surrounding the public defender's decision to deny him services.
"We haven't gathered all the facts and evidence," said Sulik. "It's as if the court heard one side of the story. There may be another side, [and] there may not. But when you go into court and there's a trial on something you aren't aware of, you're kind of caught unprepared."
Newland, 42, remains in prison, where he's been since his 2009 sentencing.
With the appeal pending, state officials are hesitant to discuss the case publicly. However, they privately maintain that other public defender's offices statewide did a better job of screening the eligibility of other defendants.
Nevertheless, Ruane, who was assisted in the case by two other attorneys from his firm, Grayson Holmes and Stephen Lebedevitch, sounds doubtful that his client's circumstances are unique.
"How many other trials statewide did people go unrepresented, and was that a voluntary issue or forced upon them?" said Ruane. "I was practicing in 2009 and I had no idea this was going on in a courthouse. So it's possible other people have slipped through the cracks."•