Attempted murder charge may be dropped because of Franklin County attorney shortage

The Franklin County Courthouse on North Fourth Avenue in Pasco, Wash.

A 16-year-old may walk away from an attempted murder charge because he was denied an attorney for nearly a month and a half.

The case against Alejandro Garcia will be the first chance to see how Superior Court judges may deal with the continuing shortage of defense attorneys.

A hearing to dismiss the case is scheduled on Tuesday, just days before it’s scheduled to go to trial.

Defense Attorney Tim Dickerson is challenging Garcia’s 42-day stay in custody without an attorney, saying it violates his client’s constitutional right to an attorney and to a speedy trial.

Garcia is accused of being one of two gunmen who shot at Christian Uribe near the intersection of East Butte Street and South Owen Avenue in August 2022.

The attack came after Uribe targeted a teen, and allegedly hit and killed a 26-year-old Kennewick father, Roberto Segura Flores III in August 2022.

Garcia was arraigned on April 4 for attempted first-degree murder in connection with the shooting. He has been held in the Benton-Franklin Juvenile Detention Center awaiting trial as an adult.

That arraignment started a 60-day clock for when a trial must begin, which meant he needed a trial to start by next week.

A lack of available defense attorneys qualified to handle the case, in part because of a staffing shortage at the Office of Public Defense, led to Dickerson being appointed on May 15 with only 18 days left on that clock.

While he told Judge Jackie Shea Brown on Thursday that he could be ready for a trial next week, his client deserved to have an attorney who had more time without giving up his right to a speedy trial, Dickerson said.

“During the wasted speedy trial time to date, no investigation, not interviews, no conversation with the client, in fact no discovery at all has occurred due to the state’s failure to adequately fund, recruit and retain indigent defense services. This is clear unambiguous, actual prejudice caused to the defendant,” he said.

He also pointed out that the case against his client relies on three pieces of evidence. One of those, an accusation by the other alleged shooter, likely won’t be brought up in the trial. So it’s in his client’s interest to move forward before the prosecutors find more.

The Franklin County Prosecutor’s Office has not filed a response to Dickerson’s motion.

State’s public defense problem

A confluence of circumstances have come together to create a shortage of defense attorneys across Washington state. The problem with recruiting defense attorneys is not unique to the Tri-Cities.

A combination of increasing retirements and fewer law school graduates has combined with fewer attorneys who want to go into lower paying jobs because of their high college debt.

The lack of attorneys has been exacerbated by rules set by the state Supreme Court that limit who can take what cases and how many can be handled at once.

Compounding the problem is a huge backlog of trials because the COVID pandemic put many cases on hold for a couple years.

The situation in Franklin County has become desperate. At the moment, there are only two attorneys qualified to handle murder cases and three attorneys for felonies.

This is down from a high of five or six public defense attorneys that Dickerson saw during his 19 years as a Franklin County deputy prosecutor.

The office is on its third month of not having enough attorneys for newly filed cases, and is continuing to have a backlog of about 80 felonies in need of an attorney.

And finding an attorney for Garcia was difficult because of conflicts of interests with other available attorneys.

Shea Brown held a hearing on Thursday to examine whether the delay in appointing an attorney qualified as an “unavoidable and unforeseen” circumstance.

Both attorneys found that the county’s Office of Public Defense had taken every step it could to recruit attorneys.

County public defense Manager Larry Zeigler testified Friday that some aspects of the problem could have been foreseen, such as funding problems with public defense, others were a surprise, such as COVID or the number of homicide cases.

Not the defendant’s fault

Franklin County’s and the state’s difficulty with public defenders shouldn’t have to hamper Garcia’s defense, Dickerson argued.

“Yet the court and the state continually fail to remember, the state is mandated to adequately fund, recruit and retain indigent defense attorneys for every defendant, and every case filed that is eligible for indigent defense,” Dickerson said.

He said trial courts have granted defense attorneys a continuance, even over objections from their clients, because there is a good reason to.

The rulings are made so the accused person is given a chance at having the best defense, but Dickerson said in this case, the defendant has already been hurt by the delay by keeping him in custody without access to an attorney.

“Any continuance at this point deepens the prejudice to the defendant and the ability to defend the case,” he said.