Meet Manuel Hidalgo Rodriguez, arrested and convicted in 1995 for child sexual assault that he did not commit. Hidalgo spent 5 years out of a 5 1/2 year sentence before his conviction was reversed and the charges dismissed.
Meet Thomas White, also convicted for child sexual assault and who also spent 5 years in prison before a third jury finally acquitted him in 2005.
But Hidalgo and White have more in common that merely being falsely accused of terrible crimes for which they both spent long years in harsh conditions in prison. Both convictions were obtained by a failure of the system: in Hidalgo’s case, aided by the complete inexperience of his defense attorney in what amounted to a constructive denial of counsel; in White’s, horrifying misconduct by the police and prosecutors to hide exculpatory evidence.
Stevensen was working for the Barker and Howard law firm, which provided indigent defense services for Chelan County, when he was assigned in 1995 to represent Hidalgo. He had been admitted to the Washington State Bar less than two years earlier, and had been working as a Chelan County public defender for a little over a year.
In a declaration filed in court on Friday, Stevensen, now a juvenile prosecutor for Chelan County, wrote that he had had limited legal experience and little supervision or support from his employers when he was handed the Hidalgo case.
Stevensen wrote that he was unable to launch a counter defense to medical testimony, offered by prosecutors, that one of the children Hidalgo was accused of attacking had been sexually assaulted. He said that he did not know how to “attack” the strong medical testimony or to call on expert witnesses to attest that children sometimes make up stories of being sexually assaulted when they are improperly questioned by authorities.
In both cases, one thing is clear to me: the system failed the defendants. Whether it be the public defender system in Hidalgo or the law enforcement and criminal justice system in White. The difference is that Hidalgo’s lawyer has seemingly taken responsibility for his contribution to Hidalgo’s nightmare, whereas the officer and prosecutor in White’s case pretend like they’ve done nothing wrong.
The suit against the police in White is nothing new. The suit in Hidalgo is extremely rare. Hidalgo’s lawyer settled, because he has malpractice insurance although his suit against the public defender system is still pending.
Someone, ultimately, must pay. In some form or another. While courts have routinely declined to hold prosecutors responsible for their misconduct (see here and here and more generally here and here), defense lawyers have no such immunity. And Stevensen, to his credit, did the right thing. He stood up and took responsibility for his actions. That he is being held financially responsible for his inexperience and not any intentionally malicious act on his part is unfortunate, but as long as courts decline to recognize that the system itself is flawed, the burden will fall on the individual lawyer.
Much about the system, though, is backwards. Just like the detective in White who continues to remain a police officer,
Stevensen was admitted to the Washington State Bar in October 1993 and was hired by Barker and Howard in 1994.
Barker and Howard no longer provides the county’s public defense, but did provide it from January 1994 until December 2002. One of its partners, attorney Keith Howard, then contracted with the county until 2006. In 2007, the county switched to a public defenders office, called Counsel for the Defense of Chelan County, and hired Howard as its director.
Hopefully Stevensen has learned from his mistakes, although he’s now on the other side of the fence as a juvenile prosecutor.
There’s one more thing worth mentioning in Hidalgo, especially in light of the conversation around the ‘sphere a few weeks ago regarding IAC and our responsibilities:
Partway through the trial, Firkins, a private attorney [and Hidalgo's current attorney], sent a letter to the court offering to represent Hidalgo if the judge, Carol Wardell, would grant a two-week continuance. Wardell denied the request, saying in court that she thought Stevensen was doing a good job.
It must’ve been clear to some that Stevensen wasn’t doing a constitutionally adequate job, perhaps even Hidalgo himself. Yet he was denied the opportunity to prevent the injustice prior to its occurrence and only gets some measure of vindication after spending 6 years:
Hidalgo was assaulted while in prison and put in solitary confinement. Other court documents state that he was assaulted twice in prison and spent six months in solitary confinement for his own protection.
One can’t begin to put an economic price on the damage to the lives of Hidalgo and White. Money goes a long way, but it isn’t everything. And the beating taken by the system and our notions of justice? What’s the price on repairing that?