Maryland Bar Bulletin
Publications : Bar Bulletin : August 2006

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Please Stand By

~For three MSBA members, notoriety no obstacle to advancing cause of justice~

When convicted sniper John Allen Muhammad dismissed his court-appointed attorneys a month before the start of his Maryland trial, opting instead to represent himself, presiding Montgomery County Circuit Court Judge James L. Ryan presented the defendant with an option seldom used at the state level: the use of standby counsel.

"I've been on the bench since 1987 – sitting on the circuit court since '91 – and this was the first time that I had ever had standby counsel [in my courtroom]," explains Ryan, who read of the practice – in which court-appointed counsel may offer a defendant legal guidance but may not address the court themselves – while poring over law books. "To say that it's infrequently used would be an understatement."

When Muhammad "confirmed that he would accept standby counsel," Ryan first turned to the public defender's office. But when he learned that the law forbade the public defender's office from acting in such capacity, Ryan, by way of the Maryland State Bar Association as well as local and speciality bar associations, put out a statewide call for volunteers to assist Muhammad. Three criminal defense attorneys – MSBA members J. Wyndal Gordon, Jai Bonner and Russell A. Neverdon, Sr. – answered the call.

"It was so late in the game," admits Gordon. "There was so little that we could offer him at the time we arrived in the case because so many deadlines had been missed and very little was done to advance his defense."

Moreover, because of the limitations imposed by the statute, Gordon, Bonner and Neverdon were effectively limited in their scope. "[They] can't speak on record, can't offer objections," Ryan acknowledges. "They can only offer advice when the defendant requests it."

"That was probably the most difficult, frustrating part as attorneys, because we're kind of chained to the chair," admits Neverdon. "You can't say anything and object as we normally would be able to. That limitation was just overwhelming."

Nevertheless, Gordon, Bonner and Neverdon took on Muhammad's case, volunteering considerable time and resources as they balanced frequent meetings and trips to Montgomery County with their own busy Baltimore-area practices.

"We were passionate about safeguarding his rights," explains Bonner. "That was the main focus."

"When you have cases like this, it's easy to say, ‘Ah, lock him up, throw away the key, we don't care if he gets a fair trial,'" notes Gordon. "And that was one of the reasons why we got involved: to ensure that the rule of law – the right to a fair trial, the right to due process, and even the right to represent himself – was preserved."

Gordon, Bonner and Neverdon immediately set about delegating tasks amongst themselves, from drafting schedules to preparing motions to briefing the defendant – even providing him with suitable attire.

"I would like to have had at least two more people in the rotation, just so that we would have some fresh minds," admits Bonner. "It would have made delegating a lot easier because…it was a little too much for three people to do."

On May 30, 2006, Muhammad was convicted of six murders in Montgomery County connected with the October 2002 killing spree in which 10 people died throughout the greater DC/Maryland/Northern Virginia area. But for his team of legal advisors, there is no doubt that their time, expertise and other resources were well-spent.

"We marked our place in history – although some may challenge the side of history on which we fall," says Gordon. "We all did our part to ensure that constitutional principles are preserved, that the legal profession is held in high esteem, despite the notoriety involved in this trial, and that people can still obtain a fair trial – it doesn't matter who you are."

"The attorneys who provided standby counsel were professional, experienced trial lawyers," adds Ryan. "They went all-out in assisting this defendant, and they are a credit to what we all stand for."

Bonner, who sits on the Baltimore County Bar Association's Pro Bono Committee, emphasizes the importance of pro bono service to the community as a whole – particularly the need for attorneys to handle domestic matters.

"There are literally thousands of domestic cases that go forward without the appropriate representation, and of course the judge can only make a ruling based on what has been presented to him or her," notes Bonner.

"To me, it's like getting away from the city and going out into the mountains, getting a taste of nature and getting revitalized, [then] coming back and saying, ‘I'm ready to fight the fight,'" says Neverdon. "To me, it's a part of the oath that you took, because advancing the cause of justice does not always come with a price tag."

Standby Counsel

From Left: Russell A. Neverdon, Sr., Jai Bonner, and J. Wyndal Gordon
volunteered so serve as standby counsel for convicted
sniper John Allen Muhammad during Muhammad's Maryland trial.

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Publications : Bar Bulletin: August 2006

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