Indigent Defense

High-earning, court-appointed lawyer failed to provide 'even a modicum of representation,' suit alleges

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Attorney Jerome Godinich looks at a prosecutor in the Harris County, Texas, criminal courts in June 2019 in Houston. According to an Aug. 3 lawsuit, Godinich failed to provide “even a modicum of representation” to Michael Carter of Houston. Photo by Karen Warren/The Houston Chronicle via the Associated Press.

When Houston man Michael Carter was arrested on suspicion of driving while intoxicated in July 2018, he was “a happily married 65-year-old man with a house, a truck and a simple life," a malpractice lawsuit says.

By the time that his case was dismissed in February 2022, Carter had lost his home, his truck and his wife of more than 40 years, who died while he was incarcerated. Carter was unable to attend the funeral, according to the suit that he filed against his court-appointed lawyer.

The lawyer, Jerome Godinich, failed to provide “even a modicum of representation to Carter,” the Aug. 3 suit alleges. and Law360 have coverage.

The Houston Chronicle reports that Godinich has “faced persistent allegations of falling down on the job” in other cases, as well. “Yet year after year, Godinich has remained one of the highest-paid and busiest defense attorneys representing indigent clients in the Houston region,” the newspaper says.

In 2018, Godinich was appointed to more than 600 felony cases, earning $409,615, the suit says. The number of cases is more than four times the recommended felony caseload for an attorney in a year.

By 2022, he made $585,950 for work on four capital murder cases, 296 felonies and one appeal. Some lawyers in Harris County, Texas, have even bigger caseloads representing indigent clients. One lawyer earned $1 million last year, according to the Houston Chronicle.

Carter’s suit says he was asleep in his vehicle and his keys were out of the ignition when he was found by a police officer. He walked with a cane because of a workplace injury in 2002. Yet he was forced to perform a field sobriety test without the cane and without the back brace he often used, which made the test painful and difficult.

The Texas Fair Defense Project, which is representing Carter, publicized the suit to call attention to what it deems to be an unreasonable number of cases handled by court-appointed defense lawyers in Harris County, Texas.

Although Harris County, Texas, has a public defender system, private lawyers still represent most people accused of felonies in Harris County, Texas, according to an Aug. 3 press release by the Texas Fair Defense Project. The nonprofit’s executive director is calling for “a robust, independent public defense system.”

According to the suit allegations, Godinich didn’t visit Carter in jail and didn’t respond to his phone calls and letters. Carter finally received a visit from a legal assistant in July 2019, more than eight months after Godinich took over the case from a lawyer who retired.

Carter “felt forgotten and disposable,” the suit says.

Godinich filed his first substantive motion in January 2020, more than a year after he took over the case, according to the suit. The motion sought funds for an investigator and an expert witness.

The only other motions filed by Godinich were fee claims and exhibits related to the claims, the suit says. He also failed to respond to prosecution motions regarding expert witnesses, testimony, evidence of prior convictions and bond.

The suit says Godinich maintains a court-appointed caseload “that would prevent even the most skilled and dedicated attorney from competently representing all of his clients.”

The suit seeks damage for mental anguish and economic losses caused by incarceration.

Godinich didn’t immediately respond to an ABA Journal email and voicemail requesting comment. He did not provide comment to other publications.

Some fellow lawyers told the Houston Chronicle that Godinich works hard and takes on cases shunned by other lawyers. In recent years, he has obtained three “not guilty” verdicts, one of them in a murder case and another in a child sexual-assault case.

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