Constitutional Law

Feds Say 'Second Chair' Lawyer Paid $5K Gave OK Murder Defense Though Lead 'Counsel' Was a Fake

One might think Gwen Bergman has a slam-dunk argument that she was not adequately represented by legal counsel during a federal murder-for-hire trial that resulted in a conviction and a seven-year stint in jail.

The “lawyer” her family paid $70,000 to represent her, Howard O. Kieffer, never went to law school. He is now serving a nine-year federal prison term on various fraud-related convictions, the Denver Post reports.

However, the government is contending in an evidentiary hearing this week to determine if Bergman’s Sixth Amendment right to counsel was violated that Bergman did, in fact, have a defense lawyer at trial, the newspaper recounts. It was E.J. Hurst II, who said he accepted $5,000 to act as a paralegal for Kieffer—who he thought was a lawyer—because he wanted the experience of working on a federal felony trial.

Asked by Bergman’s lawyer, Phil Cherner, whether he was competent to defend Bergman’s case, Hurst told U.S. District Judge William J. Martinez he wasn’t.

“I only had a law school course on federal rules of evidence,” said Hurst, who also said he regretted the decision to seek a bench trial before now-retired U.S. District Judge Walker Miller, with whom Bergman crossed swords on multiple occasions.

Bergman said she only met Hurst on the day before trial and never agreed he could represent her.

But federal prosecutors called Hurst a “second-chair lawyer,” pointing out that he drafted pleadings, made objections and gave closing arguments.

Martinez will decide the issue at a later date.

As detailed in earlier posts, Kieffer was accused of practicing in federal courts in 10 states without a law license.

It appears that he also may have presented continuing legal education courses to attorneys.

Related coverage:

ABA Journal: “Catch Me If You Can” (2009)

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