JEFFERSON CITY, Mo. — A public defender on Thursday asked Missouri Supreme Court judges for a lighter punishment after neglecting indigent clients while he dealt with illness and what he says was a heavy caseload.
Columbia-based public defender Karl Hinkebein in court documents admits to poorly representing and not communicating with six indigent clients between 2011 and 2014. Chief Disciplinary Counsel Alan Pratzel, whose office investigates claims of attorney misconduct, asked judges to suspend Hinkebein for a year before he can reapply.
But Hinkebein’s attorney, Sara Rittman, said her client suffers from a chronic illness, which she did not disclose, and had been hospitalized during the time his work suffered. She said he was also handling a very heavy caseload, and she asked the court to let him off with a reprimand.
“This case involves an attorney who is physically broken working in a system that was broken,” Rittman said, later adding that judges “shouldn’t overlook the things that were out of his control.”
The case hits on larger concerns about underfunding and overworking in the state’s public defender system. Pratzel, however, told the judges it would be wrong to apply different standards for public defenders and said doing so could mean prosecutors or private attorneys with high caseloads later similarly ask for leniency when accused of poor work.
“In my view, there is no exception,” he said.
Hinkebein has argued that he feared he would be fired if he refused cases. But Judge Laura Denvir Stith on Thursday questioned Rittman about her client’s decisions and his responsibilities to clients.
“Wasn’t that a mistake of judgment on his part not to fight back?” she asked. “We all understand the pressures he would have felt and that you’ve explained very well, but is that acceptable to not say anything because you think you’ll be rejected?”
Missouri public defenders have for years complained that poor funding is stretching the office thin and hurts lawyers’ ability to adequately represent poor defendants.
Michael Barrett, director of the Missouri State Public Defender Office, in August 2016 assigned a case to then-Gov. Jay Nixon, an attorney, to protest Nixon’s funding proposals for the office. The agency also sued over Nixon’s budgeting decisions. A judge later ruled Barrett didn’t have the authority to appoint Nixon to a case and the lawsuit was dismissed.