Inexplicable Incompetence or Pure Stupidity? How Dennis got Disbarred

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When retaining a lawyer to represent you in court, you’d expect them to fight hard to protect your rights – especially if they are charging you an arm and a leg to defend your innocence.

The vast majority of lawyers have no problems upholding this basic tenet of practice – a comforting sentiment given the exorbitant fees that some lawyers charge.

Sadly, not all lawyers are created equal, and in recent times a number of lawyers have been disbarred for failing to properly represent their clients.

Take Dennis Hawver, for example.

Hailing from Kansas in the United States, Hawver was retained to represent his client, Phillip Cheatham, in a murder case.

While most lawyers endeavour to present their client’s case in the most positive light in order to secure a verdict of ‘not guilty,’ Hawver took it upon himself to describe his client as a ‘professional drug dealer’ and a ‘shooter of people.’

He based his central legal argument upon the somewhat flawed logic – that, as his client had shot and killed two other people, he would not have spared the third as they may have helped identify him.

Rather, Hawver argued that another person had shot the deceased in an attempt to frame his client.

Furthermore, he left out vital evidence that may have exonerated his client – claiming that he did not know that mobile phones had GPS capabilities, and therefore was unaware that they could be used to track his client’s true location at the time of the alleged incident.

Hawver also failed to examine witnesses who could verify Cheatham’s alibi, and didn’t even bother with pre-trial investigation, claiming that he couldn’t afford one – despite free funding being offered to conduct the investigation, which could have made all the difference.

Perhaps these mistakes could be explained by a lack of experience – Hawver had never represented a client in a capital murder case before.

Capital murder refers to any murder case for which the perpetrator may be sentenced to death.

Unfortunately for Cheatham, his lawyer’s failure to present his case in a favourable manner appears to have substantially contributed to the jury’s verdict of guilty.

The sentence of death that followed was perhaps unsurprisingly, given that Hawver had stated that the person who committed the crime ‘deserved to be executed.’

The death sentence was imposed despite Kansas having earlier abolished the death penalty – and some have said that Cheatham only received that sentence because his lawyer failed to seek dismissal of the capital murder charge – a move that would have been blindingly obvious to any competent lawyer.

On appeal, the Kansas Supreme Court overturned the verdict and ordered a new trial on the basis that Hawver failed to properly represent his client.

Ironically, Hawver also found himself before the Kansas Supreme Court fighting allegations of incompetence, which eventually led to him being banned from practising law.

But Hawver’s incompetence didn’t stop there – in a somewhat unconventional move, he donned a wig and old-fashioned suit at his disciplinary hearing in a bizarre tribute to his hero, Thomas Jefferson.

Apparently, the costume was intended to convey his first amendment constitutional right to defend his client, and his client’s right under the sixth amendment to choose a lawyer.

Unsurprisingly, it didn’t persuade the Supreme Court, who unanimously agreed that Hawver was ‘inexplicably incompetent’ and disbarred him from practising law.

Perhaps it was fate – Hawver later claimed that he wasn’t upset about the outcome of the hearing as he didn’t feel that practising law was productive, and felt that his talents were better utilised elsewhere – namely growing vegetables in an aquaponics garden.

While Hawver’s conduct might be viewed as embarrassing, amusing or simply bizarre, there have been a number of similar cases closer to home in recent years, which have resulted in incompetent lawyers being ‘struck off.’

In NSW, complaints against lawyers can be made to the Legal Services Commissioner, and the Law Society has the duty of investigating allegations of misconduct.

There were 482 complaints in the last year which resulted in 12 lawyers being ‘struck off’; in other words, banned from practising law.

One lawyer was struck off after being caught cheating – ironically in a Bar Association ethics exam.

Several others were struck off after they were found to have misappropriated trust money – in other words, after they were caught stealing money from their clients or their firm and using it for their own expenses.

Yet another was reprimanded after harassing his former client by sending numerous text messages, misleading the court and forging signatures.

Though lawyers are often portrayed in the media and television shows as unethical, the reality is that the vast majority of lawyers are highly ethical, and ‘dodgy’ lawyers are a rare breed.

However, the ‘bad seeds’ highlight the importance of thoroughly investigating a lawyer’s background, qualifications and experience before making a decision to retain them.

People will sometimes be be inclined to retain a particular lawyer due to an attractive cost arrangement.

However, it goes without saying that this should never be the sole basis upon which to choose a lawyer.

When deciding which lawyer to retain, it’s advisable to look at their recent cases and to ascertain whether they have a proven track record of obtaining favourable outcomes.

You can also take a look at client testimonials, which may give an indication as to client satisfaction.

Staff profiles, which are often found on firm websites, may give you an idea of the background of particular lawyers and may also shed some light on a lawyer’s areas of expertise.

Finally, if your matter is complex or serious, such as a murder case, it’s always a good idea to ask the firm whether they have experience representing clients in similar cases, and, if so, what kind of results they obtained.

If you’re concerned about whether or not your lawyer has been reprimanded, you can always contact the Law Society in your state, who keeps a record of all lawyers who have been reprimanded or struck off.

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Ugur Nedim

Ugur Nedim

Ugur Nedim is an Accredited Criminal Law Specialist with 25 years of experience as a Criminal Defence Lawyer. He is the Principal of Sydney Criminal Lawyers®.

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