Mixed martial arts fight promoter Mike Stidham, who three years ago was found guilty of assault, may be entitled to a new trial, and a chance to reverse his conviction, if a judge finds his lawyer had a conflict of interest.
On Thursday, the Utah Court of Appeals ruled that Stidham is entitled to a hearing at which he would attempt to demonstrate that the lawyer who represented him through his December 2013 trial had a conflict because the lawyer also represented Stidham’s co-defendant.
According to the appeals court, a conflict seemed likely from the outset of the case.
“The fact that the court previously and repeatedly felt the need to inquire about the possibility of a conflict suggests the court’s contemporaneous recognition of the distinct possibility that a conflict existed or could arise,” the appeals court ruled. “The interests of justice would have been better served had the court considered [Stidham]’s motion for a new trial ... through an evidentiary hearing.”
In a written ruling, the high court reprimanded 3rd District Judge Ann Boyden for declining to grant Stidham an evidentiary hearing, in which he would put on evidence to show he was not given a fair trial because of his lawyer.
The appellate court ordered Stidham be given such a hearing.
If the fight promoter is successful, he could be headed back to trial.
Stidham, who went to trial, was sentenced in March 2011 to 30 days in jail and 70 hours of community service for assaulting a bouncer at a strip club.
His co-defendant, Salvador Sanchez, 28, who pleaded guilty, received the same sentence. But Sanchez received credit for six days in jail he already served.
Both men were represented by the same attorney — Tyler Ayers. According to Stidham’s appeal, the co-defendants were satisfied with their use of the same lawyer until Sanchez settled his case in a plea deal with prosecutors.
Ayers allegedly told Stidham that calling Sanchez as a witness in his trial would pose problems when the time came for Sanchez to be sentenced — both cases were litigated before Boyden.
As it happened, Ayers called no one but Stidham to testify in his own defense.
“[Sanchez] expressed a desire to testify for [Stidham], but trial counsel was concerned that his doing so might negatively affect [Sanchez’s] later sentencing by the same judge,” the appeals court wrote.
Stidham, 43, and Sanchez were each convicted of third-degree felony assault. The charge carried up to five years in prison and three years of probation. Another co-defendant, Aaron Sawyer, 31, pleaded guilty before the trial to misdemeanor assault. Boyden sentenced him to one year of probation and 50 hours of community service.
The defendants were celebrating new recruits into their mixed martial arts league on Jan. 11, 2009, at Southern X-posure in South Salt Lake when a bouncer, Jacob Alba, allegedly heard the men were making crude comments.
Alba testified that he confronted the men, who, in turn, challenged him to a fight.
As the group was walking toward the door of the club, Alba said, Sanchez lurched backward into him.
Surveillance camera footage showed Alba pushing Stidham and punching the two men.
A melee of men broke out with bouncers and patrons joining the fracas.
Alba suffered a fractured eye socket and broken nose that required surgery. Stidham sustained a head injury and told officials he was cut with a sharp object during the fight — in his trial, Stidham’s attorney alleged it was a knife.
No hearing date for Stidham’s newly ordered evidentially hearing was immediately set, according to court documents.