The county’s Indigent Defense Coordinator scrambled to obtain an attorney for a man accused of killing a bicyclist, or the division risked being found in contempt of court by a superior judge.
Monday afternoon Cochise County Superior Judge Laura Cardinal ruled that IDC would not be found in contempt after Cochise County Administrator Rich Karwaczka, whose office oversees IDC, told Cardinal the department had secured a lawyer from Sonoita for defendant Noe Jesus Smith.
Smith, charged with manslaughter for killing a bicyclist last year at the Lavender Pit in Bisbee and bolting from the scene, appeared in court last Monday, but his hearing had to be postponed because IDC had not yet found a lawyer to take his case.
Cardinal was displeased because she had ordered IDC to appoint a new attorney for Smith in June.
The lack of an attorney at last week’s proceeding represented yet another continuance in Smith’s matter, which is now more than a year old.
In an email to the Herald/Review Monday, Karwaczka, who was once the Cochise County Public Defender, explained the issue of not being able to find an attorney for Smith when Cardinal ordered it represents a much larger issue to and “impacting defense representation.”
“IDC is a department which is overseen by me,” Karwaczka said. “I understand the request from Judge Cardinal was for the coordinator to appear, but Judge Cardinal’s concerns are a culmination of larger issues impacting defense representation.
“Assignment delays are caused by several factors — increased case filings, lack of contract counsel and increased number of people in our jail,” Karwaczka added. “ We were able to fully staff our Public Defender, Legal Defender and Legal Advocate offices, however that solves only part of the problem. Currently, I’m working with the judiciary, County Attorney, County Defense Offices, local defense attorney offices, and the Sheriff’s Office to hopefully eliminate situations like Mr. Smith’s case.”
The attorney hired to defend the 24-year-old Smith is Joe Heinzl.
According to its website, Cochise County’s IDC “assigns attorneys in all cases where a person is constitutionally entitled to an attorney and the court has determined that they are indigent and do not have the financial ability to hire one. These cases include criminal felony, misdemeanor, extradition and appellate cases, juvenile delinquency and dependency cases, and mental health commitment cases.
“IDC does not represent clients or give legal advice. IDC functions as a business office making attorney assignments, paying appointed attorneys’ fees and case-related expenses, maintaining databases, and assisting with quality control throughout the court system.
“IDC assigns all cases to the Public Defender, Legal Defender, or IDC Attorneys. IDC Attorneys are private attorneys who have agreed to provide legal services at a contracted rate and submit their bills to IDC for review and payment.
“Cases are referred to IDC by the Cochise County Superior and Justice Courts for assignment of counsel. Generally, cases are first referred to the Public Defender and Legal Defender offices. Cases that are not accepted by the Public Defender or the Legal Defender are then referred to IDC Attorneys. Ethical conflicts of interest or existing workload capacity are the two common reasons cases are not accepted.”
Karwaczka explained that Smith had been assigned an attorney by IDC — private attorney David Wilkison — “in a timely fashion, but the attorney withdrew at the request of Mr. Smith.”
“In this situation, the Indigent Defense Coordinator was persistently trying to find representation,” Karwaczka said in the email. “Phone call after phone call and email after email and she received the same response from the county offices and contract counsel. They cannot take the case.
“Finally, she was able to secure an attorney from outside of the county in time for today’s hearing,” Karwaczka added. “The coordinator is extremely hardworking and dedicated in her role and takes her position of assigning cases very seriously.”
Bisbee police said Smith struck cyclist Sergio Lalli on the afternoon of June 11, 2021, as Lalli rode his bicycle around the Lavender Pit on State Route 80 near mile post 342.5.
Lalli, a fixture around Old Bisbee who was always pedaling around town, was heading east. Smith, also heading east, struck Lalli with the front right end of his vehicle and kept going, police said.
At least two witnesses told police they saw Smith hit Lalli and drive off, a police report shows. The report also says Smith confessed to striking the older man.
Investigators said Smith abandoned his car about a mile east of the scene and took off. A relative of the suspect later gave investigators Smith’s identity and they arrested him at his Douglas residence.
Under Wilkison’s representation Smith had gotten as far as a settlement conference this spring. But after the session failed to yield results, Smith said he wanted another lawyer.
Smith’s next hearing is scheduled for Aug. 15.