Attorney Back On Murder Trial

The Sun – July 3, 2011

Capital murder defendants Charles and Jennifer Bowen got back their defense attorney last month after the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals ruled in June that the lawyer did not have a conflict of interest.

District Court Judge Burt Carnes disqualified attorney Bob Phillips in May of last year after a protest by Williamson County District Attorney John Bradley. The appellate court reversed that decision and the Bowens murder trial is now scheduled for August 15.

After a year off the case, Mr Phillips said he will have to work “double time” to be prepared for the new court date.

“It’s unprecedented in my career to be disqualified from a case and it’s also unprecedented to have a higher court put me back on the case I don’t really have any basis for comparison,” Mr. Phillips said.

He declined to comment on the Bowens except to say they are “happy to have their lawyer back.”

Mr. Bradley said he sees no reason to appeal the decision to the Texas Supreme Court. He argued that Mr. Phillips had a conflict of interest because of his representation of then-murder defendant William Ballenger, who might have testimony relevant to the Bowens case.

Judge Carnes and the Wil-Co District Attorney’s Office said that Mr. Phillips would be placed in an awkward position as a result of representing both Mr. Ballenger and the Bowens. Mr. Ballenger was convicted in September and sentenced to 40 years in prison.

“At the very least, he would be forced to attack Ballenger’s credibility as a jailhouse snitch,” according to the motion filed by the district attorney’s office.

The Court of Criminal Appeals disagreed.

“The potential for such a conflict is not serious,” wrote Judge Tom Price, who delivered the court’s 8-0 majority opinion. “That the defense regards Ballenger as a friendly rather than a hostile witness would seem to lessen the need for a vigorous, adverse cross-examination of a Ballenger.”

The Bowens are accused of murdering Ms. Bowen’s ex-husband John David Blattner, who was found shot to death April 11, 2009, in a  remote part of eastern Williamson County. Family members last saw Mr. Blattner on March 28, 2009, at his Round Rock apartment.

Mr. Bradley said the year-long delay has not negatively impacted either the prosecution or the defense in the Bowens case.

“We wanted to make sure that we don’t have a problem once we start a trial,” he said. “I’m just glad we got an answer and will respect their decision on the matter.”

The district attorney’s office got an answer from the State Bar of Texas as well.

In addition to filing a motion to disqualify Mr. Phillips through the courts, the office also filed a grievance with the State Bar accusing him of unethical behavior.

The grievance was summarily dismissed. Mr. Phillips said it was also the first time in his 30 years as at attorney that a prosecutor filed a grievance against him.

“They were so desperate to get me off the case that they filed an ethical complaint with the State Bar as well as Carnes,” he said. “To put it mildly, it was very distasteful to me.”

Austin attorney Keith Hampton represented the Bowens over the last 12 months because he was concerned that the district attorney’s office had a vendetta against Mr. Phillips, he said.

It’s a cornerstone of constitutional law that defendants are entitled to the legal counsel of their choice, Mr. Hampton said.

“This district attorney’s office did literally everything it could to remove Bob Phillips from the case and it’s not because he’s a crummy lawyer,” he said. “They want after him I think because he is extremely good.”

Mr. Bradley declined to comment on the grievance with the State Bar and denied that his office’s attempt to remove Mr. Phillips was anything but legal concerns about a fair trial.

“Mr. Hampton is mistaken in that regard,” Mr. Bradley said. “We’ll still have a good fair trial.”

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