OGDEN — Matthew Stewart got his wish Thursday, cutting off public funding for his defense.
A judge upheld his firing, apparently amicable, of his two public defenders. He is now defended by four lawyers working pro bono: Randy Richards and his law partner Bernie Allen; Jonathon Grimes, of Salt Lake City; and Mike Studebaker, Ogden.
Stewart faces the death penalty stemming from a Jan. 4 shootout with police serving a search warrant at his Ogden home. Weber-Morgan Narcotics Strike Force Agent Jared Francom, an Ogden officer, died of his injuries, and five other officers were wounded.
Stewart’s defense team had been a hybrid, composed of Richards, paid private counsel, and public defenders Bill Albright and Ryan Bushell — the latter two appointed in February.
Deputy Weber County Attorney Sandra Corp argued Thursday in 2nd District Court that changes effective this year to the state’s Indigent Defense Act ban such a combination.
But prosecutors still objected to Stewart’s request to fire his public defenders, saying the expense of a capital defense would cause disruption and delay as funding needs mount for the defense.
Richards on Tuesday filed a motion formalizing Stewart’s request: “The county has no basis for arguing against this; indeed, the county stands to save some $100,000 by having Mr. Stewart relieve them of their duty to provide him with attorneys.”
At Thursday’s hearing, Richards assured 2nd District Judge Noel Hyde that his defense team will take on the case for the duration without public funds.
Prosecutors requested that Hyde swear Stewart in as a witness and question him in open court to be sure he understood the possible financial impact from the loss of the county’s indigent defense funds.
Corp asked the judge to specifically ask Stewart whether that would change his request to fire his two court-appointed counselors.
Stewart replied, “No, it wouldn’t your honor.”
After the hearing, Albright said he was informed that he and Bushell would be fired by Stewart on May 23, the last of what had been weekly visits with Stewart at Weber County Jail.
Albright said Stewart was not angry, but actually friendly, and cited no specific complaint about the job they were doing.
Stewart told him his father, Mike Stewart, has a 15-year professional relationship with Richards and felt more comfortable with Richards leading the case without public defenders.
“He said he is not firing me,” Albright said. “He is just doing what his dad recommends.”
Stewart’s three-day preliminary hearing is set to begin July 18, but Richards told Hyde that the hearing would probably need to be postponed because of the new defense team coming onboard. He said defense ballistics testing is also still pending.
Stewart faces a charge of aggravated murder, which carries the death penalty, in Francom’s death, and seven counts of attempted aggravated murder for shooting at seven other officers, according to the charges. He is also charged with drug distribution for the 16 marijuana plants police said were subsequently found in his home.
The Stewart family hired Richards on Jan. 5 and since then ran out of funds. Websites collecting donations for Stewart’s defense have raised an estimated $25,000, family members say.
An outside possibility exists that Stewart could still ask for county funds for his defense in the future. As Hyde noted, state law provides a process involving a review of defense expenditures, with hearings before the county clerk-auditor’s office as well as the court. A request could be entertained, the judge said, if unforeseen changes in circumstances occur, or if the defense’s case would suffer “prejudice” without the assistance.