Court-Appointed Atty Accused Of 'Abysmal Representation'

By Emily Sawicki | August 4, 2023, 3:11 PM EDT ·

A 70-year-old Houston man who says he sat in jail without substantial contact from his court-appointed attorney for more than three years before his case was ultimately dismissed — causing him to miss the death and funeral of his wife of 40 years — has sued his former lawyer for legal malpractice.

Michael Carter filed a petition in Texas state court on Thursday alleging his publicly funded lawyer, Jerome Godinich, billed for just eight out-of-court hours working on Carter's case, all of which were billed within in a five-week period.

"Carter believes that he has only spoken to Godinich about five times, all of which were during court dates Carter had, and none of which were confidential or involved discussing the facts of his case or any possible legal strategies," Carter said in the suit. He alleges the attorney did not answer phone calls and neglected to respond to letters for years while Carter sat in jail in Harris County.

Jailed in July 2018 on suspected driving while intoxicated, Carter said he was at the time "a happily married 65-year-old man with a house, a truck and a simple life."

Behind bars from July 2018 until the case was dismissed in February 2022, Carter "lost everything," he said, including his truck, his job, his credit and his wife, who died while he was in jail and whose funeral he was not able to attend.

Carter said he has walked with a cane since 2002, but for approximately his first year in jail he was denied its use, which made movement difficult and painful. After that year, he was moved in a wheelchair. In jail during the first years of the pandemic, Carter said he experienced "additional fear and isolation" due to concerns over his high blood pressure and high cholesterol, which he feared would make potential infection more dangerous.

From his July arrest until early November 2018, Carter said he was represented by his first court-appointed attorney, who withdrew from the case upon his retirement, shifting Carter's representation to Godinich by late November.

Godinich allegedly filed his first motion in January 2020, more than a year after being assigned Carter's case — "the only substantive motion Godinich filed throughout the entirety of his representation of Carter," according to the suit.

According to Carter, the only other motions Godinich filed in the case were to collect his own fees.

Carter said he made numerous attempts to reach his attorney by telephone and letter, but all attempts were fruitless. "Carter's understanding is that Godinich's phone was not set up to take calls from jail," the suit said, and "several" letters Carter sent went unanswered.

In those letters, Carter claims, he sought Godinich's help building his case, suggesting witnesses and requesting motions, including requesting an independent test of a blood sample that was drawn a few hours after his arrest.

In 2021, Carter's family was finally able to reach Godinich by phone, but the attorney allegedly told them he had done everything Carter suggested; on other calls with Godinich's staff, the family said, they were told that a new blood test would be requested soon, but allegedly it never was.

Carter claims he tried three times to speak directly with a judge about his predicament, with his request for new counsel denied the first time and his request for a speedy trial denied a second time. The third attempt was successful, Carter said, and on Feb. 15, 2022, Carter "told the judge that Godinich had never asked him his side of the story."

"After Carter explained what happened when he was arrested, that the keys were not in the ignition when he was approached by the police, and the delay between his arrest and the testing of his blood, Carter's case was dismissed," he said.

"Any reasonable lawyer representing Carter would have, at minimum, regularly met with Carter confidentially, discussed the facts and law with Carter, developed a legal theory to defend Carter's case, sought to have the blood sample independently tested, investigated witnesses, sought speedy resolution of the case, and performed numerous other legal tasks to advance Carter's interests," Carter said. "On information and belief, Godinich did none of these things."

Carter said that Godinich was likely hampered in his ability to represent him due to the Harris County Criminal Courts assigning him a caseload of more than 600 felony cases in 2018, a time in which he was paid $409,615 for his county-appointed cases.

His earnings from the county have continued to increase year over next, Carter said, with Godinich collecting close to $600,000 in taxpayer funds in 2022 to take on criminal defense work in Harris County while providing "abysmal representation." This includes allegedly missing deadlines in death penalty cases.

Carter's case has been taken up by the Austin-based nonprofit Texas Fair Defense Project.

"Mr. Carter sat in jail for years without receiving even basic representation from his attorney, and Harris County taxpayers still wrote him a check," Geoff Burkhart, executive director of the nonprofit, said in a statement provided by the organization.

"Last year, Harris County paid attorneys over $30 million for felony representation, yet — with the exception of the public defender's office, which handles just a fraction of the cases — there is little attorney oversight," Burkhart added. "Harris County needs a robust, independent public defense system."

Carter seeks damages for economic losses and mental anguish relief between $250,000 and $1 million.

Godinich did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

Carter is represented by Nathan Fennell of Texas Fair Defense Project.

Counsel information for Godinich was not immediately available.

The case is Michael Carter v. Jerome Godinich, in Harris County, Texas. The case number was not yet available.

--Editing by Nicole Bleier.

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