Originally created 06/03/01

Mother blames attorney's actions for son's conviction



Louise Johnson is suffering from bone cancer, but she says her deepest pain comes from taking the advice of an attorney who told her youngest son three days before his trial that he had to either plead guilty or get another lawyer.

She hopes to live long enough to see that mistake corrected.

Mrs. Johnson hired attorney Richard Ingram in January 1996, agreeing to pay $1,500 for the defense of the youngest of her eight children, Christopher Johnson, then 19, who was facing charges of aggravated assault and destruction of personal property stemming from a November 1995 shooting.

Three days before Mr. Johnson was scheduled to stand trial on May 19, 1997, Mr. Ingram told mother and son that Mr. Johnson had to plead guilty or find another lawyer, Mrs. Johnson said.

"Let me think - I want to get this right because I know I have to be truthful," Mrs. Johnson said. "(Mr. Ingram) told Chris, 'I'm the lawyer; I know what I'm doing. If you don't take the plea, go get yourself another lawyer, because I'm not going to see you go to jail for 40 years.'

"I couldn't get no other attorney because (Mr. Ingram) had all my money," Mrs. Johnson said. She used what remained of her late husband's life insurance to make the final payment to Mr. Ingram. "It was the last $700 in the bank."

Mr. Ingram is a member of Fleming, Blanchard, Jackson, Ingram, Floyd, Fleming & Fleming, an Augusta law firm that, in a five-year period, has withdrawn from more than three times as many cases as all other area attorneys combined.

The meeting with Mr. Ingram, Mr. Johnson and his mother took place Friday, May 16, 1997, and according to court documents, that's when Mr. Johnson signed his guilty plea. Trial was set for the following Monday.

A serious disagreement with a client over strategy is a legitimate reason for an attorney to withdraw, said Ray Patterson, who teaches ethics at the University of Georgia School of Law.

But, Dr. Patterson said, giving a client just three days to find another lawyer amounts to abandonment - an ethical violation.

"If a client wants to take a risk (of a jury conviction), that's the client's choice." And an attorney must follow, he said.

Mr. Ingram said he would have followed Mr. Johnson's choice.

"I've talked to the State Bar (of Georgia) about this ... You tell a client what your professional opinion is, and if he wants something different, then he should get another opinion," Mr. Ingram said.

There's no way he would abandon a client, Mr. Ingram said.

Mr. Johnson was accused of three crimes, including aggravated assault,in the Nov. 12, 1995, shooting of Johnny Alston, who was struck in the arm by a bullet outside the Johnson family home on Shady Lane. Mr. Alston and a friend who was with him that night told investigators they did not have a weapon.

Mr. Ingram said he would have tried Mr. Johnson's case if there had been a witness who could support Mr. Johnson's claim that the shooting was in self-defense.

But there was a witness, according to the police reports.

Qujuan Harkins told sheriff's investigators he saw Mr. Alston raise a gun before Mr. Johnson fired. Mr. Harkin's mother, who was present that night, told investigators she didn't see a gun in Mr. Alston's hand but that she heard him say, "Your life or mine."

In the 18 months he represented Mr. Johnson, Mr. Ingram never interviewed those witnesses, they said. Mr. Harkins said no defense investigator came by, and no one asked him anything after the sheriff's investigator questioned him.

Mr. Ingram did, however, repeatedly advise Mr. Johnson to plead guilty and ultimately told him he had to plead guilty or obtain another attorney, the Johnson family said.

In an interview earlier this year, Mr. Ingram was told there were eyewitnesses, besides the victim and his friend, whose testimony might have supported Mr. Johnson's account.

That would be evidence for a jury to consider, Mr. Ingram said, adding that in similar cases, one of his clients was convicted and another was acquitted. He said he did not speak to any witnesses in Mr. Johnson's case. But if Mr. Johnson had insisted, he would have tried the case, Mr. Ingram said.

"No, we won't give up on anybody," he said.

Mrs. Johnson said her son was adamant about standing trial, but she talked him into pleading guilty.

"I told him to listen to Mr. Ingram. I begged him to take the plea," Mrs. Johnson said. "I trusted Mr. Ingram. He was the lawyer. I had never had any experience with the courts. None of the children had ever been in trouble," she said. Mr. Johnson had never been arrested.

"A lawyer's recommendation to plead guilty after a decent investigation and assessment of the defensive prospects is one thing," said James C. Bonner Jr., an attorney with the Georgia Indigent Defense Council.

But a guilty plea based on an attorney's advice when the lawyer did not fully investigate is subject to being reversed by an appeals court for ineffective assistance of counsel, Mr. Bonner said.

"(Mr. Ingram) said the best idea for me was to take a plea," Mr. Johnson said recently in a prison visitor's room. "He said the witnesses wouldn't do any good 'cause the state had already subpoenaed them and because Alston did not fire first.

"I thought if a jury really heard what happened and talked to the witnesses, I wouldn't have gotten any time."

Senior Judge Franklin H. Pierce sentenced Mr. Johnson on July 23, 1997, to serve 10 years in prison. He is now at the Screven County Correctional Institution.

A year after the sentencing, Mr. Ingram wrote a letter to the Johnson family offering to return to Judge Pierce for an additional fee of $1,500 to ask the judge to reduce the sentence.

In a letter obtained by The Augusta Chronicle, Mr. Ingram wrote that he could arrange to have Mr. Johnson brought from prison to attend a hearing in Augusta if Mrs. Johnson paid him "$400 or $500" for the transportation costs.

According to Donnie Chavous, the sheriff's officer in charge of prisoner transport, there is no such charge. Prisoner transport is part of the sheriff's office's duties and is performed solely on a judge's order, he said.

Mr. Ingram also wrote that Mr. Johnson might want "to pay someone such as my employer Mr. (John) Fleming to assist us on this matter. He would probably charge approximately $1,000 to $1,500 ... I think that is something you should strongly consider."

Mrs. Johnson said she didn't have several thousand dollars. And she didn't know about the hearing in December 1998, when the judge signed an order denying a request to reduce her son's sentence. She said she made repeated phone calls to the court reporter requesting a transcript of the hearing, but got no response.

The Chronicle also requested a transcript, but court reporter June O'Conner said in February that she was unable to find the tape-recording of that hearing.

Mr. Ingram said he is disappointed in Mr. Johnson's prison sentence and Judge Pierce's refusal to reduce it.

"Honestly, I don't think ... I've had more than 10 people that actually went to jail," Mr. Ingram said of his legal career.

Mr. Johnson's earliest possible parole is July 2003. If he must serve the entire sentence, he will not be free until July 21, 2007.

His mother fears her illness will kill her before her son is released.

Mr. Johnson's family and friends have written the Georgia Board of Pardons and Paroles, asking for a compassionate reprieve to bring him home earlier.

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

Withdrawal requests and orders

Superior court judges sometimes grant attorneys' requests to withdraw from cases. The following are the number of withdraw orders signed by judges in the Augusta Judicial Circuit and the number of withdrawals requested by attorneys in the circuit.

Judges' withdrawal orders:

Judge Albert M. Pickett - 18

Senior Judge Bernard J. Mulherin Sr. - 14

Chief Judge J. Carlisle Overstreet - 10

Judge Carl C. Brown Jr. - 3

Judge William M. Fleming Jr. - 2

Senior Judge Franklin H. Pierce - 2

Judge Robert Lyn Allgood - 1

Former Judge Bettieanne Hart - 1

Attorneys' withdrawal requests:

Fleming firm (John Fleming, Jim Blanchard, Kay Jackson, Richard Ingram, Maureen Floyd and former partner Danny Durham) - 69

Benjamin Allen - 4

Peter Flanagan - 3

Wade Padgett - 2

Robert Hunter - 1

Kirk Gilliard - 1

John Claeys - 1

Walter Meetze - 1

George Bush - 1

Richard Allen - 1

Samuel Sibley - 1

Anthony Pete - 1

Joe Neal Jr. - 1

Clayton Jolly - 1