A man who spent seven months in jail falsely accused of child molestation is suing the former public defender who represented him.
Felipe G. Vargas said his Grant County public defender provided “ineffective assistance” by representing more than 550 other felony clients. Vargas wants $500,000 for lost wages and unspecified punitive damages.
Grant County agreed last month to a $250,000 out-of-court settlement, leaving ex-public defender Thomas Earl as the lone defendant in the U.S. District Court suit.
Now disbarred, Earl is acting as his own attorney in the jury trial that started Monday in Spokane before Senior Judge Justin L. Quackenbush.
The case is drawing attention to counties’ contracts with private attorneys for public defender services. Such contracts allow the private attorneys to decide when to spend money on services such as interpreters, investigators and polygraph tests – creating a conflict of interest at the expense of clients, Vargas’ attorney, George Ahrend, told the jury.
In Grant County, indigent defendants represented by contract public defenders are twice as likely to plead guilty to crimes as they are in counties where other resources are tapped to back the constitutional guarantee of a fair trial, Ahrend said.
Earl, a former Grant County deputy prosecuting attorney, signed a $500,000 annual contract with Grant County in 2003, agreeing to provide public defender services regardless of the number of cases filed.
Out of that money, Earl was supposed to hire additional defense attorneys and pay for anything else needed to help defend clients, many of whom are indigent and Spanish-speaking, Ahrend told the jury.
But Earl refused to hire investigators and qualified attorneys, instead hiring his son who had failed the bar exam, and spending an estimated average of two hours per felony case, Ahrend said.
Grant County’s system, like systems in 17 other Washington counties, creates a built-in conflict of interest, Ahrend said: The administrator of the contract “had every incentive to minimize expenditures of funds so he could pocket more (money) himself.”
“The Grant County system was not a perfect system,” Earl said in his opening statement. Grant County commissioners, he said, “don’t like to spend money on public defense.”
Still, Earl said, he did the best job possible administering his contract, conceding a high caseload and that he lost quality attorneys to better-paying jobs.
Vargas was arrested Nov. 7, 2003, at his home in Quincy, Wash., on charges of child molestation and indecent liberty. He lost his job when his bail was raised from $30,000 to $100,000 “because of his Hispanic heritage,” Ahrend said.
Three days after his arrest, Vargas’ alleged victim recanted her story, but the public defender didn’t immediately learn about that because he didn’t have an investigator and the prosecutor’s office didn’t release the information, Ahrend told the jury.
In June 2004, Vargas passed two polygraph tests and the prosecutor’s office agreed to drop all charges.
When Vargas was in the Grant County Jail, Earl didn’t show up for the first two court appearances, sending his son – a legal intern – to see the defendant.
Vargas’ trial date was eventually postponed by Earl, who told the court the defendant would plead guilty and ask for first-time sex offender sentencing – something Ahrend said the defendant didn’t fully comprehend when he agreed to waive his right to speedy trial.
Vargas wanted to take a polygraph, but Earl didn’t want to pay for the test, so the defendant spent seven months in jail, Ahrend said.
At the time, Earl had 554 felony cases – well over the recommended caseload of 150 felonies a year – and was doing private practice, probation violation and family law cases, Ahrend said.