Beating death suspect may represent self in second trial
A man accused of beating a friend to death in El Jebel in February 2001 could defend himself in trial for a second time in an effort to clear his name.
The lengthy and unusual legal proceedings involving Russell Thompson became even more bizarre during his latest appearance Monday before an Eagle County district judge.
Although he won an important ruling upholding the judge’s decision to grant him a new trial, Thompson was clearly agitated with his legal representation by the public defender’s office. He indicated that his attorneys are urging him to accept a plea bargain, something he has adamantly insisted he won’t do.
Thompson and the attorneys on both sides of the case are forbidden from discussing it with the media. The “gag order” is in place to limit pretrial publicity and possibly taint potential jurors. But anything that occurs in courtroom can be reported.
During a break in a hearing Thursday, Thompson, speaking with his mother in the courtroom, indicated he was frustrated with the public defender’s office because they haven’t met with him to discuss the case over the last five months. In addition, they want him to accept a plea bargain that could send him to prison for six years.
Thompson made those statements to his mother in a regular conversational voice, and at times became more animated. The comments were made easily within earshot of a reporter and a Eagle County sheriff’s investigator, the only people in the courtroom at the time.
Thompson told his mother he would fire Dana Christensen of the public defenders office and represent himself if he remains unsatisfied with the lawyer’s representation.
This could be the second time Thompson has fired his attorney. Authorities accused Thompson of getting drunk with a friend, Timothy “Chico” Destromp, at Destromp’s apartment in El Jebel on Feb. 10, 2001. Investigators alleged that the two men got in a drunken brawl and that Thompson beat Destromp to death.
Thompson confessed but later recanted and said he was so drunk he didn’t know what he was saying. He claimed the sheriff’s office botched the investigation.
Thompson was charged with second-degree murder. Six months later, he fired a different attorney with the public defender’s office, Elizabeth Espinosa, on grounds that she was “incompetent.” She had urged Thompson to accept a plea bargain rather than go to trial.
Thompson represented himself at the September 2002 trial. A jury found him guilty of the lesser charge of reckless manslaughter. He was sentenced to nine years in prison.
However, Thompson filed a request for a new trial on grounds that the prosecutor at that time was unfairly allowed to present evidence that hadn’t been disclosed before the trial. Thompson said that diminished his ability to prepare a proper defense.
Judge Richard Hart of Eagle County District Court ordered the conviction thrown out and granted a new trial. Hart upheld that decision in a recent ruling. The new prosecutor in the case, Deputy District Attorney Phil Smith, had asked the judge to overturn his ruling for a new trial.
The district attorney’s office refiled a charge against Thompson for manslaughter. Since it’s a new trial, Thompson was able to apply for representation from the public defender’s office. He did so because Espinosa was no longer employed there.
Now, however, he appears to once again be questioning the competency of his lawyer. Despite the comments to his family, Thompson didn’t take formal action Thursday to fire Christensen.
The prosecution team indicated to Hart Monday that a plea bargain has been offered or will be shortly to Thompson. The team asked that a deadline be established on Jan. 26, 2004, for Thompson to accept or reject the offer.
If the case proceeds, Hart said, a trial will likely be held before next summer.
[Scott Condon’s e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org]
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