Homicide suspect refuses to rehire public defender
May 23, 2002
Russell Thompson must represent himself when he goes to trial for second-degree murder in July or rehire the attorney he once fired, a judge ruled Wednesday.
Eagle County District Judge Terri Diem said there were no grounds to rule that public defender Elizabeth Espinosa had failed to properly represent Thompson.
Thompson is seeking appointment of another attorney at the expense of the state. He claimed Espinosa failed to communicate with him and failed to dig into the evidence produced by the prosecution.
Thompson told Diem he doesn’t want to represent himself in the trial but didn’t want to settle for the public defender.
“I’m terrified to go through proceedings and be stuck with Elizabeth Espinosa,” Thompson said. “I don’t feel she had my best interests at heart. Her representation was terrible at best.”
Thompson has been representing himself for nearly a year. A court-appointed legal adviser consults with him during hearings.
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Aspen attorney James R. True also talked to the family about representing Thompson. True decided against taking the case due to the time involved and short opportunity for preparation.
Thompson is accused of beating Timothy “Chico” Destromp to death in Destromp’s El Jebel apartment on Feb. 10, 2001. Investigators claim Thompson punched Destromp multiple times when they got in a fight during a day of drinking.
Thompson confessed to the beating of his friend but later recanted. He claimed that in his highly intoxicated state he convinced himself that he killed his friend.
But Thompson now claims that after looking into the evidence, one or more other people were in Destromp’s apartment that evening and were responsible for the beating.
A report by his court-appointed forensics expert also suggests someone other than Thompson may have been responsible for the homicide.
Thompson claims that the Eagle County Sheriff’s Office and Colorado Bureau of Investigation botched the investigation of the case. They didn’t do a thorough job because they relied solely on his confession, he said.
Thompson fired Espinosa last summer. He argues that the state should appoint a new attorney since Espinosa allegedly failed to adequately represent him.
Attorney Jonathan Shamis of Glenwood Springs was appointed to look into the allegation of ineffective assistance of counsel by Espinosa. Shamis said during Wednesday’s hearing that Thompson’s repeated allegations about Espinosa’s work may create a scenario where she has a conflict and cannot represent Thompson if he sought help from the public defender’s office again.
Diem wouldn’t consider the conflict argument because she said another judge already ruled against it. The “bottom line,” Diem said, is that Thompson can only have a different attorney appointed if he can produce evidence – and not just allegations – that Espinosa was ineffective.
“If that doesn’t exist, Mr. Thompson is on his own,” Diem said.
The judge became visibly agitated during the hearing and essentially lectured Thompson about Espinosa’s skills as an attorney.
“I don’t know what happened, but it has nothing to do with Ms. Espinosa’s competence,” Diem said.
When pressing Shamis on whether he found grounds to constitute ineffective counsel, Diem again expressed her frustration. She said Shamis had a month to investigate Thompson’s allegations but hadn’t come to a conclusion.
“I’m tempted to forget the whole thing,” Diem said.
She didn’t have to. Thompson declined to press for another hearing on Espinosa’s quality of representation. He explained after the hearing that he can retain his right to make that claim after the trial. In addition, pressing the issue now could force Espinosa to break her silence under attorney-client privilege rules.
Thompson is out of jail on bond and is working as a framer for a construction company in Colorado Springs. He said he is regularly visiting a law library in that city to help prepare for his trial.
The District Attorney’s office hopes that trial doesn’t occur in Eagle County. Chief Deputy DA John Clune filed a motion May 10 to change the venue. He cited extensive pretrial publicity by The Aspen Times and other publications. No ruling has been made yet on that motion.