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Legal Ethics

Lawyer explains why he argued murder client wouldn’t have left witness alive: It was client’s idea

Posted May 15, 2014 7:46 AM CDT
By Debra Cassens Weiss

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Kansas lawyer Dennis Hawver has an explanation for this trial argument on behalf of a double murder suspect: If the defendant had killed two women, he wouldn’t have left a third person alive to testify against him.

The real gunman shot the witness eight times, Hawver argued, to persuade her to testify against his client, Phillip Cheatham Jr. Hawver says in a brief filed on Tuesday with the Kansas Supreme Court that he was following his client’s strategy when he made the argument, the Topeka Capital-Journal reports.

Hawver had never defended a capital murder case when he represented Phillip Cheatham Jr., whose capital conviction was overturned because of ineffective assistance of counsel in a January 2013 Kansas Supreme Court opinion.

The Kansas Board for Discipline of Attorneys recommended discipline on March 14. Two members recommended disbarment, and one recommended indefinite suspension.

In his brief, Hawver said his client was "an experienced and highly street-smart and intelligent criminal" who developed and approved the trial strategy in writing. Hawver has previously argued that he did not violate ethics rules “to a degree requiring discipline."

According to the Kansas Supreme Court opinion overturning Cheatham's conviction, Hawver told jurors Cheatham had a previous voluntary manslaughter conviction and referred repeatedly to his client as a “professional drug dealer” and “shooter of people.” In the sentencing phase, Hawver said that whoever committed the crime deserved to die.

Hawver had tried only three murder cases before representing Cheatham, and none were death penalty cases.

Hawver told the Topeka Capital-Journal that he will likely quit practicing law, no matter what the decision in his case. “I don’t think practicing law is productive,” he said. He told the newspaper he plans to devote his time to growing vegetables in an aquaponics garden.

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