A public defender who voiced concerns in a courtroom that he might be arrested will not be subject to a criminal investigation, his lawyer said. But Michael Courtney’s experience, which has drawn national legal media attention, has defense attorneys rallying to his cause.
“My weekend was ruined because I was worried about being arrested,” Courtney told state Superior Court Judge John Blawie in mid-February. Courtney, Danbury’s chief public defender, is defending Richard Roszkowski, who is facing the death penalty for killing a child and two adults. “I can’t sleep at night because I don’t know what [members of the state attorney's office] are going to cook up, and that’s not fair to my client.”
Courtney made his comments after a police report raised questions about the legality of his actions in contacting a possible witness. That man, who once had a prison cell next to Roszkowski, was already on the prosecution’s witness list. The man was in a witness protection program as the result of his involvement in another case, but it’s unclear if that status is what raised the officer’s concerns.
Bridgeport State’s Attorney John Smriga told the judge that he had seen no evidence that would warrant Courtney being charged, but at the time he also refused to grant the lawyer immunity from prosecution. At that point, Blawie ordered Courtney, who had asked to be removed from the case, to continue to represent Roszkowski.
Courtney then hired a lawyer of his own. Jon Schoenhorn, of Hartford, said he met with Smriga and discussed the police report, and that it appears that at least some of the issues have been resolved. Schoenhorn said that Smriga clarified that there would be no investigation of Courtney or his staff. Schoenhorn added that, in his view, in criminal cases, “no party owns a witness.”
Both Chief State’s Attorney Kevin Kane and Bridgeport prosecutor Robert Satti Jr., who is handling the Roszkowski case, declined to comment.
Roszkowski is charged with shooting to death his 39-year-old ex-girlfriend, her 9-year-old daughter, and a man he believed was involved with his ex-girlfriend. A previous jury had sentenced Roszkowski to death in 2009. But the death penalty sentence was overturned because of an error made during jury instructions.
Jury selection in the latest prosecution began last fall and the trial is ongoing. Courtney had previously asked to withdraw from the case because he and Roszkowski reportedly have a poor relationship.
Legal publications as disparate as the snarky Above the Law blog and the serious ABA Journal have reported on Courtney’s emotional in-court comments. In a brief phone conversation with the Law Tribune on Feb. 28, Courtney declined comment on the situation, other than to say colleagues have contacted him to express support. “I’ve had universal support from defense lawyers,” he said.
Robert Field, a retired public defender who used to be Courtney’s boss in the Danbury office, said the situation highlights the difficulty of defending a high-profile suspect. Though Field was not familiar with the issues involving the witness in the Roszkowski case, he said it’s “extremely difficult to measure what to do in fine-line cases.”
“I know that when emotions run high it can be very dangerous trying cases,” said Field. “Either angry victim family members, clients themselves, or members of their families often present side issues. Other ethical issues are what may need to be revealed if a client informs you of other crimes they are contemplating. I can assure you that it is not easy being a defense lawyer in high-profile cases.”
New Haven Public Defender Thomas Ullmann said that public defenders have to have a great deal of inner fortitude.
“When you do this work, you recognize there could come a day in your career that your freedom could be jeopardized by the things going on in a particular case,” Ullmann said.
Those freedoms could be jeopardized by either a defendant, a prosecutor or a judge, he said. “We’ve kind of prepared ourselves for the eventuality of this; it’s the nature of what we do,” said Ullmann, who recalled being held in contempt of court in 1992 after refusing to testify against a client.
In the Roszkowski case, Ullmann expressed doubts that what the state was concerned about was the possible outing of a person in a witness protection program. “I think it had to do with control issues,” Ullmann said. “It’s called abuse of power. That’s what I think it’s about, abuse of power, and not on the defense side.”
Ullmann continued: “These prosecutors think they own witnesses. It’s pretty clear from case law that nobody owns witnesses.”
In fact, said Ullmann, a defense lawyer wouldn’t be doing his job if he didn’t reach out to all potential witnesses who might be able to help his client. “We have a constitutional obligation to pursue the witnesses,” said Ullmann. “I find it almost comical when [prosecutors] start accusing us of tampering.”•