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Bill would prevent PDs and paid private counsel from working together on the same case

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Rep. Juan Fernandez-Barquin

Rep. Juan Fernandez-Barquin

An unusual case in which a judge appointed a public defender to work with a paid private lawyer in a death penalty case has resulted in a legislative bill that would ban such an appointment again.

The House Criminal Justice and Public Safety Subcommittee on February 17 passed HB 67, which “does not allow the court to appoint a public defender on a case that already has a private counsel,” said Rep. Juan Fernandez-Barquin, R-Miami, sponsor of the bill. “And it does not allow the court to appoint them simultaneously.”

The action stemmed from the 2010 case in which Michael Keetley allegedly went to the Ruskin home of a man he believed robbed and shot him a few months previously, leaving him with permanent injuries. Police said he shot six men, killing two brothers and wounding the others in what prosecutors said was a case of mistaken identity.

Keetley, who consistently has maintained his innocence, was entitled to be represented by the 13th Circuit Public Defender’s Office. But his parents, using their retirement savings, instead hired two private attorneys who worked on the case. Prosecutors initially sought the death penalty, which requires two attorneys with a set amount of experience in death penalty cases on the defense team.

Keetley was arrested in late 2010 but didn’t go to trial until February 2020. In 2017, one of his private attorneys withdrew due to injuries from a previous auto accident (he died shortly afterwards) and the remaining attorney asked for a public defender to be appointed. Over the objections of the Justice Administrative Commission and 13th Circuit Public Defender Julianne Holt’s office, the judge agreed and the Second District Court of Appeal on jurisdictional grounds declined to overrule the judge.

Citing the parent’s lack of resources and Keetley’s indigency, his attorney already had petitioned successfully to have the state pay legal expenses in late 2014.

In 2019, the State Attorney’s Office decided not to seek the death penalty, and the public defender was dismissed from the case.

“The judge saw this was not going the right way and to avoid an ineffective assistance of counsel claim down the road, the judge appointed the public defender to represent Mr. Keetley at the same time simultaneously with his private counsel,” Fernandez-Barquin said. “I think it’s a waste of taxpayer funds and I hope you all feel the same way.”

In response to a question, Fernandez-Barquin said he would be open to an amendment to clarify that a public defender working with an office such as the Florida Innocence Project or other pro bono or non-profit entity would not be affected.

As a former assistant public defender, Fernandez-Barquin said he had only seen a couple cases where a judge appointed a public defender to work with a paid private attorney.

“It was very rare,” he said. “Typically, what would happen is if there was a private counsel on it, they would just file a motion to withdraw and then the defendant would file an affidavit to certify their indigency and the court could just appoint the public defender.”

Public defenders qualified to handle death penalty trials typically handle multiple cases at any one time, and “their time is already limited and they were being appointed on a case where there was a private counsel that had been paid $200,000 in essentially duplicative efforts,” Fernandez-Barquin said.

“If you can afford to spend $200,000 then we need our public defenders to be working with all of the other thousands of people that they’re trying to assist,” said Rep. Dianne Hart, D-Tampa.

Keetley finally went to trial last February. The trial resulted in a hung jury and the retrial, delayed by the COVID-19 pandemic, is scheduled for July 12. Keetley, who still faces life without parole if convicted on the two first-degree murder counts, has remained in jail since his arrest.

The bill passed the committee 16-0.

HB 67 next goes to the Justice Appropriations Subcommittee and the Judiciary Committee. An identical bill, SB 752, has been assigned to the Judiciary, Criminal Justice, and Rules committees but has not been heard.

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