A defense lawyer’s request to be removed as counsel to a murder defendant was properly denied by the trial court—even though the defendant himself had requested new counsel—because “no conflict existed other than that created by defendant through his unjustified hostility toward his competent attorney,” a state appeals court has ruled.
An Appellate Division, First Department panel decided Tuesday that the defendant’s trial lawyer—unnamed in the opinion—had not presented a sufficient reason for removal when the lawyer joined defendant George Ventura’s application for new counsel and “cited only defendant’s recent request [for new counsel] and defendant’s belligerence in court the preceding day as the basis for his request.”
It did “not amount to an irreconcilable conflict that required counsel to be relieved,” wrote the panel, composed of Justices Rolando Acosta, Dianne Renwick, Angela Mazzarelli, Ellen Gesmer and Anil Singh.
The unanimous justices also ruled that the trial judge, Manhattan Supreme Court Justice Ronald Zweibel, had “providently exercised [his] discretion” in denying Ventura’s requests for new counsel, which the defendant had made during a suppression hearing and jury selection.
“Regardless of the sufficiency of the first inquiry, the court conducted a thorough inquiry into defendant’s second request [for new counsel] and it gave defendant numerous opportunities to elaborate on his conclusory statements that defense counsel was unprepared,” the justices wrote.
But Ventura’s “only specific complaints were unfounded,” they said, citing People v. Felder.
The panel’s opinion examined other appellate issues, as well, and the panel unanimously affirmed Zweibel’s judgement, rendered Aug. 9, 2014, and amended Aug. 12, 2016, convicting Ventura, after a jury trial, of murder in the second degree and criminal possession of a weapon in the second degree, and sentencing him to consecutive terms of 25 years to life and 15 years.
Ventura’s appellate lawyer, Siobhan Atkins, with the Center for Appellate Litigation in New York, could not be reached for comment.
The office of Manhattan District Attorney Cyrus Vance, Jr., which represented the people via Assistant DA Katherine Kulkarni, declined to comment.