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Hope for more indigent defense in Weber County despite setbacks

By Mark Shenefelt - | Oct 21, 2021

MARK SHENEFELT, Standard-Examiner

The 2nd District Court building in Ogden is pictured Friday, Sept. 18, 2020.

OGDEN — An Ogden murder trial has been postponed because a government-funded defense attorney changed jobs, one of several recent departures. But in some ways, things seem to be looking up for Weber County’s public defenders and their indigent clients.

Everardo Guadarrama-Garcia, 25, was set for trial in late November, but 2nd District Judge Noel Hyde on Tuesday canceled it after the lead defender, Randall Marshall, said the second defender’s contract is expiring and he has taken a similar job in Davis County.

A “second chair” defender usually is assigned in murder cases so the defendant will receive constitutionally required effective counsel. Marshall said his going alone in November or getting help from a hastily appointed replacement not up to speed on the case “is fraught with potential ineffective assistance of counsel.” Prosecutors and Hyde agreed, giving the county public defender’s office time to replace the second chair and adequately prepare for trial.

Marshall added that the replacement defender will “be scrambling to get up to speed on a couple of hundred cases, including this case.”

Five years ago, a study by the Sixth Amendment Center found situations of constitutionally inadequate public defense systems in numerous parts of Utah. Weber County was one of the counties named as needing improvement to ensure that indigent criminal defendants receive adequate representation.

Asked about Weber County’s current situation and a rash of openings for contract attorneys, the public defenders coordinator, Michael D. Bouwhuis, said the turnover “has presented a little bit of a challenge.” He said it was public knowledge that the Davis County public defender’s office has added four positions, and three of the departing Weber defenders are going there.

“It was sort of a confluence of different issues,” Bouwhuis said, noting that one of the Davis-bound defenders had planned to move there anyway, and two other defenders are not renewing contracts because of demands in their private practices.

Bouwhuis said he has heard anecdotally that the Davis defenders are paid a little more and their caseloads may be lighter. “Generally we are able to hang onto people who like it here and are contented,” he said. “We’ve got people who could have gone but are staying here. All you can do is try to identify ways to make it more enticing to stay here.”

Bouwhuis said he’s been a public defender locally for three decades. “You’ve just got to work hard,” he said. “I have a feeling that if caseloads were too high we’d be having turnover constantly, and we don’t.”

He said the current county budgeting process may yield help for both indigent defense and the county prosecutor’s office — the caseloads of the two staffs are “tied at the hip,” so prosecutors feel corresponding pressure.

Bouwhuis also credited grants from the Utah Indigent Defense Commission for improving the public defender landscape recently. The commission — created by the Legislature after the damning report five years ago — funded two additional Weber defender positions in 2020.

According to commission records, the agency granted $270,000 for the local defenders, supplementing the county-level indigent defense budget of $1.3 million. The commission further granted $4,546 to the Ogden City prosecutor’s office.

“They have been stepping up and helping us here by funding specialty attorneys for some serious cases,” Bouwhuis said. “That provides us hope for making more substantive progress.”

Indigent Defense Commission data shows Weber County’s per capita spending for public defenders has remained below average. In 2019, Weber spent $7.65 per capita, compared with the state average, $12.45. Utah, Davis, Morgan and Box Elder counties also placed below average.

Meanwhile, Guadarrama-Garcia remains held without bail in the Weber County Jail. He is charged with first-degree murder in what charging documents said was the ambush shooting of Mauricio Alejandro Hernandez, 24, in front of a convenience store on May 18, 2019.

On Sept. 28, before he lost his second chair, Marshall filed a court notice saying he intended that Guadarrama-Garcia will assert self-defense at his trial.

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