Murder defendant Stanley Liggins scored a victory Thursday when a Scott County judge granted his request to fire his attorneys and appoint new ones.
In a written ruling filed late Thursday afternoon, 7th Judicial District Chief Judge Marlita Greve wrote that she had “no choice” but to remove public defenders Derek Jones and Miguel Puentes from the case following statements made by Liggins and Jones during a hearing earlier in the day.
“Mr. Jones’ statements that his relationship with Mr. Liggins is ‘toxic’ and that the attorney-client relationship has completely broken down are the two hurdles the other facts cannot overcome, and which show justifiable dissatisfaction to warrant substitution of counsel,” she wrote.
She appointed the state public defender’s office to represent Liggins.
Greve did not explicitly say in her ruling that Liggins’ third trial, which was scheduled to begin May 22 in Waterloo, would be postponed, but she wrote that “if a continuance is needed, all counsel shall confer with Court Administration to have that matter set for hearing.”
After the judge’s ruling came down, Scott County Attorney Mike Walton said prosecutors will continue to work the case.
“We will be ready to go when this goes to trial,” he said. “We have been ready for two years. We’ll be ready a year from now, we’ll be ready six months from now.”
Liggins is charged in the death of Jennifer Ann Lewis, 9, of Rock Island, on Sept. 17, 1990. The girl’s burned body was found near a Davenport elementary school. Prosecutors say she also was sexually abused.
The Iowa Supreme Court overturned the first conviction, and on Nov. 6, 2013, the Iowa Court of Appeals reversed the second conviction.
In the most recent reversal, the court said 77 police reports were not provided to Liggins' defense team and prosecutors did not disclose that a key witness was a paid police informant.
He has been held without bond at the Scott County Jail since February 2014.
Liggins filed his motion for new attorneys on April 6.
The 55-year-old, shackled and dressed in orange jail garb, vigorously denied during a 35-minute hearing Thursday that his request to fire the attorneys is a tactic to delay his upcoming trial.
“I’m tired of sitting in this jail,” he told the judge. “I’m tired of coming up here. I know y'all (are) tired of seeing me. The feeling is mutual. I just want to be represented right. I want to make sure everything goes right. Everything that we have now, I didn’t have in the first or second trial because they withheld it from me, and I finally got an opportunity to present everything that I need to present.”
He said that at the start of the case, he had made it clear what direction he wanted to go in when he talked to Jones and then-lead counsel Phil Ramirez. Ramirez later withdrew from the case because of health problems.
Liggins said that when Jones took over the case, he “changed everything that we talked about, and he changed it without letting me know.”
“I was surprised by it,” he said.
Liggins claimed to have 1,700 pages of newly discovered evidence that he said would prove misconduct on the part of the prosecution. He did not specify what that evidence is.
He further said that he had expected Jones to bring up the new evidence in February during a series of motion hearings and that he thought the attorney was not being truthful with him.
Liggins also claimed that he handed over the new evidence to Jones but he did not return them to him.
Jones said that he and Liggins have “significant disagreements” about pretrial and trial strategy and that they have tried to work through those disagreements to come to a mutual understanding that would allow them move forward.
“It’s evolved to the point where the relationship is essentially toxic,” he said. “I don’t see a way for us to move forward working together, at least in an effective way at this point."
Jones said that Liggins was being sincere in his request for new attorneys and that he didn't think Liggins was trying to delay the trial. However, he disputed Liggins’ accusations and said that he was not remembering their conversations accurately.
Walton argued in the hearing that there was no sufficient reason given to fire the attorneys and that it was clear that “Mr. Liggins wants to call the shots in this case, and that isn’t always possible.”
“When he asked what is holding Mr. Jones back, it may very well be the evidence,” he said. “He makes vague references to newly discovered evidence. I don’t know of any. I don't believe there is any. I don’t believe there is anything new that’s been produced unless it was a new investigation.”
He said that his office has spent hours readying the case for trial in May and that further delay would result in an “enormous waste of time that has been expended,” especially with no guarantee that things would change with new attorneys.
“Justice delayed is justice denied for the state and the victims as well, he said.”
In her ruling, Greve wrote that despite the fact that the request comes a month before trial, the motion essentially was filed on the “eve of trial.”
“Due to the complexity of the case, this is not a case that another attorney can become familiar enough with to step in and try the case in a month,” she wrote. “It could conceivably take another year before different attorneys are familiar enough with this case to go to trial.”
Greve noted the numerous hours that prosecutors and defense attorneys spent preparing for trial and that Lewis’ family “will have to wait for a long while again before they can get any closure for this case.”
“Those facts are not lost upon this court,” she wrote.
She wrote that Liggins has a right to a fair trial but said that he is not entitled to determine all trial strategy questions or to “call the shots,” as argued by prosecutors.
“Although he is not entitled to have the attorney of his choosing, he is entitled to have an attorney with whom he can communicate and trust,” she wrote. “Mr. Liggins has a right to participate in his defense and in order to do so, must have an adequate attorney-client relationship.”
The judge noted that Liggins did not mention that he had issues with his attorneys during the motion hearings in February and it wasn’t until a letter he sent to her on April 3 that she was aware that he claimed to have new evidence.
During the motion hearings, Jones was asked and “emphatically” stated that prosecutors had turned over everything he requested and thought they were not withholding any other evidence, she wrote in the motion.