The American Civil Liberties Union says Weber County is trying to save cash by replacing the lawyers representing a man facing the death penalty in the slayings of two Ogden women.
That violates the defendant's constitutional rights, the ACLU said in a friend of the court motion mailed to an Ogden court this week. The ACLU of Utah is trying to intervene in the case of Jacob D. Ethridge, who is charged with two counts of capital murder for the shooting deaths of Teresa Tingey, 42, and Rosaanna Maria Cruz, 25. Police said both women were prostitutes. An Ogden detective has testified Ethridge shot Tingey after asking for her for oral sex. Later that day, he shot Cruz after she performed oral sex on him, the detective testified.
Ethridge's lawyers, Bernard Allen and Randall Richards, were appointed shortly after Ethridge was arrested July 13, 2008. But the Weber County Attorney's Office has been trying to have those lawyers removed.
Allen and Richards were employed by Weber County's public defenders office. But earlier this year, the ACLU brief says, the county closed that office in favor of hiring public defenders on a contract basis. Allen and Richards are not among the contracted lawyers.
Closing the public defenders office saved the county $100,000 a year, the ACLU says.
"Now, after approximately seventeen months, and with no apparent justification other than a desire to reduce costs, Weber County seeks to substitute new, seemingly less qualified counsel for Messrs. Richards and Allen," the ACLU says in its motion.
The would-be replacements for Allen and Richards have never led the defense in a capital case. The ACLU motion says replacing Ethridge's attorneys could violate his right to counsel.
The Weber County Attorney's Office did not respond to a request for comment Wednesday afternoon.
Allen and Richards have been fighting to remain on his case. Ethridge's next hearing is May 7. A trial date has not been scheduled.
Troy Booher, an adjunct professor at the University of Utah law school, said the ACLU and Weber County may have touched on a unique issue: Whether the county can be made to keep paying defense lawyers who no longer work for it.
But the more important topic, Booher said, may be whether any new lawyers are qualified to work on a death penalty case. If the lawyers aren't qualified, it could lead to years of appeals or even a new trial.
"The qualification issue is really the bigger problem in Utah," Booher said. "You either deal with the problem at the trial stage or you deal with it on appeal and post-conviction."