New state legal defense director wants to bring young attorneys in to do ‘important work’

Jim Billings, the new director of the Maine Commission on Indigent Legal Services, in his Augusta office on Friday. Joe Phelan/Kennebec Journal

Decades before taking over Maine’s system to provide legal representation for poor Mainers, Jim Billings cut his teeth accepting court-appointed clients.

It was an ad hoc system in the early 2000s when he got started, Billings said in a recent interview. Judges could select any private attorney to represent someone who couldn’t afford their own lawyer. There were no rules on who could take cases. Lawyers were reimbursed a little more than $50 an hour, which wasn’t enough to cover paralegal fees or other resources.

“It was more of a way to get experience, hopefully get retained cases, while also providing a necessary public service,” Billings said. “And if you had an interest in the work, it was gratifying.”

Billings is now wrapping up his first month as executive director of the Maine Commission on Indigent Legal Services, an independent state agency created in 2009 to supervise the attorneys courts hire to defend low-income Mainers. He took over for Justin Andrus, who announced his departure in February, saying he wanted to return to private practice.

It’s a critical time for indigent defense in Maine. The commission has been the subject of several recent investigations, legislative oversight and an ongoing lawsuit by the ACLU of Maine. The number of private attorneys accepting indigent cases reached near-record lows last month, even after state leaders agreed to increase the reimbursement rate from $80 an hour to $150 an hour.

But Billings contends the system has come a long way since his early days accepting indigent cases. He hopes that under his leadership the commission will bring more attorneys back to the rosters without compromising recent efforts to improve attorney supervision.


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Attorneys for Tops shooter ask judge to let victims keep evidence for use in civil cases

BUFFALO, N.Y. (WIVB) – Victims of the Tops shooting and their families may soon get a boost as they investigate efforts to file lawsuits related to the attack.

Federal public defenders representing the man who admitted to killing 10 people and injuring three others in the shooting filed a motion Friday to let the victims’ attorneys retain certain evidence deemed “potentially critical to civil litigation they are contemplating.”

Specifically, the defense attorneys are asking United States Magistrate Judge H. Kenneth Schroeder Jr. to let victims’ attorneys use forensic images of Payton Gendron’s cell phone, laptop, and desktop computer. The motion also covers data related to his computer files, text messages, emails, and social media accounts.

“There are 4.1 terabytes of information, and this is a small segment of that, but still a very large, voluminous segment that has to be studied, analyzed, placed on a platform to allow it to be searched – forensic access to it as well,” said Terry Connors, who represents some of the victims’ families. “All of these things have to be done. They can’t be done just sitting in the office of the federal defender with someone just sitting over our shoulder.”

In September, Schroeder signed a protective order governing discovery. It restricts the sharing of evidence. The order does allow the public defenders to review evidence with victims and their attorneys. But that must happen when a member of the defense team is present. The victims and their attorneys are only permitted to review, and not keep the evidence. They are not even allowed to take notes.

“The only way we have access to the information is to go to Gendron’s lawyers’ office. We represent the crime victims – we have to go to the killer’s lawyers’ office and sit at their computers with

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Water Protector Defense Attorneys Warn of “Breakdown in Separation of Powers”

From late 2019 through 2021, at least 115 Water Protectors were arrested in Aitkin County, Minnesota (population 15,800) for their resistance to Enbridge Inc.’s Line 3 tar sands pipeline. Today, 50 defendants continue to face charges, according to Marla Marcum of the Climate Disobedience Center, which has been tracking cases and offering support to defendants. Open cases include seven social media-based prosecutions including of Winona LaDuke, co-founder of the Native advocacy organization Honor the Earth, and Tara Houska, an administrator of the Giniw Collective. These cases, which reference social media activity in charging documents, have produced trumped-up charges ranging from “harassment of law enforcement” for yelling to charges that derive from Minnesota’s 2002 Anti-Terrorism Act, which was passed in response to the September 11 attacks.

“When Minnesota and other states passed Anti-Terrorism laws in the wake of 9/11, we were deeply concerned that they would be used to stifle protest and dissent. That’s clearly what is happening in this case,” Sue Udry, executive director of Defending Rights & Dissent, told Truthout. “The fact that a law meant to arm law enforcement and prosecutors with the tools to ‘ensure that terrorists who commit atrocities in our state are brought to justice and receive maximum punishment to match their dastardly crimes,’ has been deployed against protesters engaged in civil disobedience is dangerous, and disingenuous,” she continued.

Other open cases include felony “aiding attempted suicide” charges that defense motions have characterized as a “misinterpretation of the law” by the Aitkin County Attorney’s Office, warning that the cases could set broadly harmful precedents for protest rights.

Writing in response to Aitkin County Atorney James Ratz’s pursuit of aiding attempted suicide charges against protesters who crawled into a segment of non-functioning pipeline, defense attorney Jordan Kushner argued:

Under the state’s misinterpretation of the law,

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Hickory attorney discusses client’s DWI acquittal, Cody says lawyers help keep prosecutors, law officers accountable | Crime News

Prosecutors often highlight the cases where they get convictions, but there are times when it’s defense attorneys who get tout their successes.

Such was the case recently with a felony driving while impaired case in Catawba County.

Hickory attorney Blair Cody said his client, Gary Lester Lawing, 55, had been arrested by Maiden police and charged with felony driving while impaired, driving while license revoked and failing to maintain his lane in January 2021.

Lawing’s case went to court in May. He admitted to the driving while license revoked and failing to maintain his lane charges but contested the DWI charge.

Cody said he felt Lawing had little choice. The offer from District Attorney Scott Reilly’s office was to plead guilty as charged and face up to a year in prison.

Given the less than favorable terms of that deal and their belief that the prosecution’s case had flaws, Cody and Lawing proceeded to trial.

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Lawing was ultimately found not guilty of the DWI following a weeklong trial, Cody said.

He credits the outcome at least in part to a piece of evidence the jury did not review: the chemical analysis performed at the time of the stop.

Cody said he was able to successfully convince Judge Gregory Hayes to keep the results out of trial because, among other reasons, the device used was not properly calibrated.

“They didn’t follow the procedure,” Cody said. “It wasn’t proper and therefore you’re not going to get the result or even the fact that there was a test to be considered by the jury.”

Responding to the outcome of the case, District Attorney Scott Reilly said: “We were disappointed but we respect the judge’s decision. He ruled the blood alcohol results were inadmissible, and without that there wasn’t much

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