Defense attorney abandons client facing trial on child molestation charges

As a judge explained to jurors Wednesday why they were going home instead of hearing the evidence in a child molestation trial, he issued a scathing rebuke of the defense attorney who abandoned his client just as the trial was to begin.

 

What defense attorney Duston Tapley Jr. of Vidalia did was “unforgivable,” Judge Daniel J. Craig told the Richmond County Superior Court jury. “It was the worst kind of abandonment of a client this judge has ever seen.”

It is also a violation of the attorneys’ rules of conduct to abandon a client, a violation that can result in disbarment.

Tapley was guilty of several violations, Craig said. He also found out that Tapley had lied to him about where he went to school, how long he had been practicing law and even his age, Craig said.

Tapley told the judge that he didn’t feel competent to represent Kenneth Lawrence in the child molestation case and that he had been thinking that for months. But Tapley failed in his duty to Lawrence to tell him that, Craig said. Tapley had represented Lawrence since at least April 28, 2015. An attorney is duty bound not to accept a case he cannot effectively handle, Craig said.

Tapley also represents a person facing trial for murder and the child of a friend scheduled for trial Friday in Vidalia, Craig told the jury. If he isn’t competent to represent Lawrence he isn’t competent to represent anyone else charged with a crime, Craig said.

According to the State Bar of Georgia, Tapley has practiced law for 40 years.

Lawrence, 54, was indicted on April 14, 2015. He is accused of committing five sexual assault crimes against a child from April 2009 to September 2014. The victim is now 16 years old, said Assistant District Attorney Tom Watkins.

Lawrence has pleaded not guilty to the charges. On Monday, attorneys spent the day picking a jury. Testimony was scheduled to begin Wednesday morning.

Because Craig hadn’t sworn in the jury, no jeopardy was attached, he explained to the jury. It was critical because the Constitution prohibits trying someone twice for the same crime.

Craig said he was obligated to grant Tapley’s request to withdraw from the case because the Constitution also requires any person accused of a crime to have a competent attorney. Lawrence will be tried at another time with another jury.

Reach Sandy Hodson at (706) 823-3226 or sandy.hodson@augustachronicle.com.

 

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