Questions Continue in Case of Jailed Defense Attorney

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(Host) Vermont’s chief defense lawyer says a judge was wrong to jail an attorney this week for contempt of court. But Defender General Matthew Valerio says he has assigned new counsel in the case because he believes the defendant would not get a fair hearing if the court controversy continued.

VPR’s John Dillon has more:

(Dillon) Lorin Duckman is one of two public defenders in Addison County, and he usually spends his days trying to keep clients out of jail. But earlier this week, it was Duckman who found himself briefly behind bars.

District Judge Helen Toor ordered Duckman jailed for about an hour for contempt after an argument during a hearing. Duckman’s boss, Defender General Matthew Valerio, has reviewed a videotape of the hearing. He says he doesn’t believe Duckman was disrespectful or in contempt of court.

(Valerio) “Actually, I believe he acted to protect the interests of his client, consistent with the rules of criminal procedure and with constitutional obligations. He didn’t raise his voice. He didn’t act angrily. He stated his position that’s consistent with my understanding of the law. The judge didn’t like his position and put him in a holding cell for contempt.”

(Dillon) The altercation came shortly before a sentencing hearing in a drunken driving case. Judge Toor wanted to hear from Duckman’s client prior to accepting a plea agreement. The lawyer declined and said he wanted the judge to first accept the plea agreement before his client addressed the court. When the judge objected, Duckman said he would withdraw the plea. The judge then asked him to discuss the potential change of plea with his client. When Duckman twice refused to do so, she held him in contempt.

Valerio says he agrees with Duckman’s understanding of the law.

(Valerio) “Maybe my interpretation of the tape is incorrect. I don’t know, I guess that’s possible. But whether he was right or wrong, I can’t fault Attorney Duckman’s courage on behalf of his client.”

(Dillon) But although he believes Duckman was within his rights to object to Toor’s order, Valerio has appointed another lawyer to take over as public defender in the case.

(Valerio) “Too much had gone on the day before and in the interests of the client, it was appropriate to have replacement counsel.”

(Dillon) Judge Toor could not be reached for comment. In legal documents supporting her contempt of court order, the judge said Duckman was angry, confrontational and disrespectful. She added that this was not the first time the attorney had behaved “inappropriately” in the courtroom.

For Vermont Public Radio, I’m John Dillon.

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