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Monday, April 5, 2004
A case study in exploitation
Attorney profited, but his clients lost

By Ken Armstrong, Florangela Davila and Justin Mayo
Seattle Times staff reporters

Attorney Tom Earl collects his papers after defending himself at a disciplinary hearing Feb. 10 before the Washington Supreme Court in Olympia. Earl was a public defender in Grant County until his license was suspended over state-bar findings of misconduct in eight cases.
The "single biggest predictor" of the quality of a public defender's work, according to the Washington Defender Association, is the size of the attorney's caseload. When it comes to felonies, the limit should be 150 cases a year, bar groups say.

Last year, Grant County public defender Thomas J. Earl handled 413 — a staggering figure that eviscerated the chances of a vigorous defense.

At that rate, Earl could devote an average of only four hours per case, according to a formula used by the defenders association.

Or, to use another measure: When Earl lost his job two months ago, judges drafted 49 lawyers in a desperate scramble to fill the vacuum.

But as daunting as his caseload was, Earl didn't complain. Indeed, he invited the work — and the money it paid.

As administrator of a public-defense contract for the past three years, Earl determined caseloads and compensation for public defenders in Grant County Superior Court. The more cases he kept for himself, the fewer he had to dole out. And the fewer he doled out, the more money he kept.
"I'm a very organized person," Tom Earl told the state bar. "I do the very best that I can do on every case that I have." As a contract public defender, Earl said he handled about 250 cases a year from 1996-2001. Earl, shown in a Grant County courtroom last May with son Ryan, also worked for paying clients.

Born: May 28, 1954

Law school: University of Idaho. Admitted to the Washington State Bar on Oct. 24, 1980.

Law career: Member of Earl & Earl of Moses Lake, 1980-82. Grant County deputy prosecutor for four years. Grant County Superior Court public defender, 1986-2004. Private practice.

Estimated public-defense income in 2002: $255,000, minus overhead and assorted administrative costs.

Felony caseload in 2003: 413 (State bar recommends a limit of 150 a year.)

Trial-acquittal rate 1999-2003: 6 percent (statewide average: 15 percent)

Guilty-plea rate 1999-2003: 88 percent (statewide average: 76 percent)

Findings of incompetence:

1996, Washington Court of Appeals ordered a new trial for a client convicted of rape.

2001, federal judge ordered a new trial for client convicted of selling cocaine.

Disciplinary action: Feb. 11, 2004, license suspended pending disbarment decision by Washington Supreme Court. State bar hearing officer found misconduct in eight cases, including three in which Earl solicited money from indigent clients or their relatives.

During 18 years as a public defender, Earl's annual pay for court-appointed work climbed from $40,000 to $80,000 to $120,000 to $156,000 to a large slice of $500,000 — the amount of his public-defense contract. How large a slice isn't public record, but two years ago Earl retained about $255,000 after paying other public defenders, according to financial figures provided by those attorneys.

That accounts only for his public-defense work. Earl also maintained a private practice.

And on top of that, according to allegations by the Washington State Bar Association, Earl solicited money from court-appointed clients he was supposed to represent for free.

At a disciplinary hearing last year, an attorney for the bar picked up a green marker and drew a dollar sign. "Mr. Earl," she said, "put a price tag on the administration of justice."

The bar described how Earl received a crush of court-appointed cases; how he got paid the same for those cases, no matter how hard he worked; and how he was allowed to keep a private practice on the side. The hearing officer concluded that Grant County's system invites conflict and abuse — and that Tom Earl accepted that invitation.

Similar systems can be found throughout Washington, where local governments have placed themselves — and countless indigent defendants — at the mercy of attorneys working under fixed-fee contracts, hoping personal integrity prevails where financial motivation fails.

With heavy caseload, attorney cuts corners

In 1996, John W. Jackson stood trial in Grant County Superior Court, accused of selling drugs.

Nicknamed "Cabbie" because he used to drive a taxicab, Jackson was 59, poor, and had a prior criminal record, including drug arrests.

The state's case hinged on two witnesses: a confidential informant who said he bought cocaine from Jackson, and an undercover cop who said he saw the deal go down.

To defend Jackson, an attorney would need to scrutinize the state's case and dig around to determine if the prosecution's witnesses were credible.

But when Tom Earl received the Jackson case in November 1995, his felony caseload for the year had already topped 300 — and was growing. The time he had to devote to any single case was minimal.

So was his financial incentive.

On Jan. 1, 1996, the law firm of Earl & Earl took over the public-defense contract for Grant County Superior Court. (The firm's members included Earl's relatives, but not Tom Earl himself.) The firm hired Tom Earl to handle 40 percent of the court-appointed cases, and paid him $156,000 a year, no matter how much time he spent on those cases.

Tom Earl's agreement also allowed him to keep a private practice. So the more time he spent on court-appointed clients, the less time he would have for paying ones. And at the time, he was facing extreme financial pressure: The Internal Revenue Service had recently ordered him to pay more than $100,000 in back taxes.

With so little time to spare, Earl's preparation in Jackson's case was so minimal that he went to trial without even interviewing the state's star witness, James Allen Anderson.

Police informant liberally mixes fact and fantasy
James Allen Anderson, shown at home in Soap Lake, claims he solved several famous crimes before they occurred. How? "This," he says, tapping his head.
James Allen Anderson goes by many names.

Police in Grant County knew him as "The Plate." This was a clever play on words: Anderson has a steel plate concealed in his lower leg, but police used the name to conceal Anderson's identity as a confidential drug informant.

Others in Grant County knew Anderson by other names: "Crazy Jimmy." "Shaky Jimmy." "Jimmy the Weasel." The Anderson they knew couldn't differentiate fact from fantasy.

In an interview with The Seattle Times, Anderson said he solved the Oklahoma City bombing, the JonBenet Ramsey murder and countless other crimes — all before they happened. Asked how, he pointed to his head.

"This," he said. "You think with your mind, you put the cases together, and you put it down on paper."

Anderson said he received assignments directly from presidents John F. Kennedy and Jimmy Carter, that he had a Marine Corps command at Camp Pendleton and that he's worked as a government secret agent for 44 years.

Anderson is 51 years old.

Case unravels on appeal, but client had done his time

John Jackson's case went to trial on June 11, 1996.

On that same day, the Washington Court of Appeals ruled that Tom Earl had done such a lousy job defending a previous client that it vacated the man's rape conviction and ordered a new trial. Earl didn't conduct an adequate investigation, the court found. When potential witnesses tried to offer evidence that might help his client, Earl didn't even return their calls.

History was about to repeat itself.

In the opening moments of his trial, Jackson complained to the judge that his defense attorney had done nothing to prepare.

"What would you have Mr. Earl do?" the judge asked.

"I would have him at least talk to me," Jackson said.

The prosecution put three people on the stand, including the undercover police officer and Anderson, the confidential informant. Earl's cross-examination of Anderson failed to disclose any hint of mental illness.

The defense called no witnesses. Jackson was convicted of selling cocaine and sentenced to six years and four months in prison.

From his prison cell, Jackson appealed. Five years later, Anderson was back on the stand. This time he was questioned by Nancy Tenney, an assistant federal public defender who had investigated his background and who proceeded to shred the case against Jackson.

Tenney asked Anderson how he came to be a police informant.

Anderson replied that in 1993 or 1994, he had called Bryan Pratt, a Grant County sheriff's deputy, and offered to direct him to about seven ounces of white powder. The two met the next day.

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