By Jack Thorton
Effective at the start of the Fiscal Year 2017, Idaho House Bill 609 will appropriate $5.48 million to aid in the expanded roles and added responsibilities of the Public Defense Commission to try to ensure that the constitutional rights of indigent defendants are being protected. As many know HB 504, signed in to law by Gov Butch Otter, was drafted in response to the law suit that file by the ACLU in 2015. Although the suit was dismissed, it shed light to numerous deficiencies that were present in the Idaho public defense system that have been directly and indirectly acknowledged by statements made by the Idaho ACLU, U.S. Justice Department, former United States Attorney General Loretta Lynch and Gov. Butch Otter. Allegations have been made that Public Defense Attorneys though out counties in Idaho have lacked training, oversight and funding that may have led to a violation of the constitutional rights of many indigent Idahoans.
“This country is dedicated to the idea that every single person is entitled to equal justice under the law, regardless of wealth or prominence” Former US Attorney General Loretta Lynch
For instance, in June of 2014 Byron Lee Sanchez of Gem County under the recommendations of his Public Defender Carter Winters, plead guilty to felony injury of a child (I.C. 18-1501) for a late night confrontation he had with his 17 year old son. Allegedly, in the Early AM hours Sanchez mistook his son for intruder and brandished a fire arm. Sanchez, expecting to receive several months probation and alcohol treatment for plea agreement was instead handed a 10 year sentence brokered by his Public Defender Carter Winters. Puzzled and shocked by the sentence Sanchez later discovered that Winters was also representing his ex-wife in her child custody case against Sanchez at the same time. When this clear conflict of interest was presented before the court, Winters was removed as his council but the sentence remained in effect. In the following year while in NICI- Cottonwood, his new public Defender Mark Mimura was unable (or unwilling) to place Sanchez in any type of rehabilitation program that might get him early parole despite the fact he had no record of any behavioral complaints. Sanchez was then removed from retained jurisdiction at NICI- Cottonwood and sent to State Prison in Boise largely due to the fact that Mimura never responded to questions raised by the parole board about his progress or performance. Due to this and several other competency issues raised by Sanchez, Mimura was removed as his council. Meanwhile during his child custody case, Sanchez was able to have the no contact order lifted and retain his parental rights after it had become very apparent to Judge Tyler Smith that Byron Sanchez had not injured a child. Armed with this ruling and statements from Judge Smith, Sanchez tried on several occasions to get his previous council Mimura and new council Nancy Callahan and Rolf Kehne to pursue a motion for a post conviction release. When his Public Defense Attorneys were unable (or unwilling) to file the motion, Sanchez filed the motion himself. Currently by order of the judge Susan E Wiebe, Sanchez is barred from representing himself or filing any court documents except through his court appointed Public Defenders. The last motion filed by Sanchez was returned by the Deputy County Clerk Rachel Quenzer stating his motion was not filed due to the Judge’s order.
This case of Byron Sanchez is riddled with possible violations of civil liberties and constitutional rights going as far as refusing to file lawfully presented documents to the court for record. The purpose of the Public Defense system is to represent and defend the rights of their clients and to instruct the courts of those rights. Unfortunately many times this is not happening. There is real and credible reason that Gov Butch Otter stated that “our current method of providing legal counsel for indigent criminal defendants does not pass constitutional muster”. Although the allocation of $5.48 million to aid in reform of the Public Defense System is a good start, lets not assume that this job is finished here. Let’s closely monitor the results and make sure that this funding is a catalyst for real reform.