Sunday, July 10, 2011

Much-disciplined public defender still gets Wayne County cases

Attorney Robert Slameka has amassed quite a record: He has been admonished 11 times, reprimanded four times and had a client's conviction overturned because of his poor performance.

And the record could get worse: The state's Attorney Grievance Commission is prosecuting him on charges that he improperly revealed a client's purported confession when the man tried to back out of a plea deal in 2007.

He was tried on those charges in May and written arguments are due this month. There is no timetable for a decision. If he is found in violation of professional rules, Slameka could be reprimanded again or have his license suspended.

Slameka's 42-year legal record stands out among Michigan lawyers. A review of Attorney Disciplinary Board records shows only four other lawyers in the state have been reprimanded as many times as Slameka, but three of them also have been suspended.

"Its inexplicable how (Slameka) has avoided having his license suspended," said Larry Dubin, a University of Detroit Mercy law professor and ethics expert who helped set up the state's system for policing attorneys.

Slameka repeatedly declined to speak to the Free Press about his past troubles, the current complaint -- which he briefly described as "political in nature;" retribution for a more than two-decade-old murder case -- or the impact of a 2009 National Public Radio report that made him the face of bad court-appointed lawyers: "A lot of lawyers in Detroit say if you want to see what's wrong with this country's public defender system, just take a look at Bob Slameka: He has gotten into trouble a lot during his 40 years as a public defender, but the county still appoints him to cases."

Slameka's lawyer, Thomas Loeb, said that "four reprimands in 42 years of practice doesn't trouble me at all."

He added that two reprimands dealing with clients' fees probably wouldn't be problematic under recent court rulings. Loeb said Slameka is a solid attorney often dealing with difficult clients in serious trouble. "He's a good guy," Loeb said. "He knows (criminal) court as well as anyone else."

What some may see as brusque or uncaring, Loeb said, is a seasoned professional "who knows how to try a case without fluff." "Sometimes it's the nature of the practice that you have to get to the point," Loeb said. "Other lawyers may have better bedside manners or some clients hear what they want to hear."

A private attorney, Slameka remains on Wayne County's list of lawyers eligible to be appointed to represent indigent clients because the sheer amount of cases moving through the county's criminal justice system far outpaces the number of public defenders, and each defendant is entitled to counsel.

The standards aren't stringent. To be on the list, a lawyer has to be a member in good standing of the state bar and Wayne County criminal bar associations, attend ongoing education programs and have an office in Wayne County, said the county's Presiding Circuit Judge Timothy Kenny.

Suspended attorneys are ineligible to be assigned cases, but that standard does not cover lawyers who have been reprimanded, Kenny said.

Defending the record

Attorney Grievance Administrator Robert Agacinski chalked up part of Slameka's woes to his caseload and longevity, saying a busy criminal defense lawyer can get many complaints from unhappy convicted clients.

And recently retired Wayne County Assistant Prosecutor Augustus Hutting stuck up for Slameka: "He's straight to his word. In 15 years, I've never had a problem with Bob."

Hutting said Slameka can size up a case quickly and cut a realistic deal when necessary. The brusqueness, he said, may seem insensitive or cold to someone expecting a table-thumping shouter. But Hutting said he has never seen Slameka act contrary to his client's interests.

Politics -- or not?

Despite Slameka's assertions, "there's nothing political" about his current disciplinary case before the state, scoffed John Burgess, the Attorney Grievance Commission lawyer prosecuting him.

At his disciplinary hearing in May, Slameka said he was trying only to keep his client, Demetrius Hamilton, from hurting himself when he mentioned Hamilton's alleged confession.

In 2007, Slameka was hired to represent Hamilton on charges of sexual assault, assault with intent to murder, armed robbery and a firearm offense, which could have landed him in jail for life.

In a deal before former Wayne County Circuit Judge Diane Hathaway, Hamilton -- then 20 -- was to plead no contest to sexual assault, assault with intent to murder and the firearm violation. He was to get 10-20 years for the shooting, plus two years for the gun violation.

But at sentencing, Hamilton, who was under oath, said he didn't do the shooting and that Slameka didn't share evidence with him.

"Let's stop right there," Slameka interjected, according to the transcript, and asked if Hamilton wanted him to repeat their private talk about the shooting.

"I mean, whatever you want to do," Hamilton said.

Slameka then continued with Hamilton's supposed confession: " 'Yeah, I did it. I shot the guy because years before he beat me up and I waited to get back to him.' "

"You a liar, man," Hamilton said. "What the (expletive) is you talking about, man? (expletive) you."

"Thank you," said Slameka.

That, according to the grievance commission charge, violated a lawyer's duty to guard a client's secrets.

Slameka told the panel that he was trying to protect Hamilton because clients sometimes "make foolhardy statements and decisions." If Hamilton had canceled one portion of the deal, Slameka said, the whole plea bargain would have fallen apart. "In fact," Slameka told the panel, "he got one heck of a break.

Original report here

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