Denver District Court judge slaps state ethics commission with injunction

The Ralph Carr Judicial Building, which houses the Colorado Independent Ethics Commission.

A Denver judge must reconsider his decision to deny state funding to an indigent defendant for the purpose of hiring an investigator and expert witnesses, the Supreme Court ordered on Friday.

Both the Denver District Attorney’s Office and the attorney for Edward Sandoval agreed District Court Judge David H. Goldberg was mistaken to conclude he had no ability to authorize payments for Sandoval to mount a criminal defense. But under a longstanding Supreme Court policy, such a decision was squarely in Goldberg’s purview.

A chief justice directive last updated in 2018 allows for public funds to go to indigent defendants who represent themselves or who have private pro bono counsel. There is a third allowance, which Sandoval argued fit his circumstances: A court may authorize payments for defendants who have private attorneys, but who become impoverished at some point during their proceedings. In that scenario, a judge would need to find it “too disruptive” to substitute a public defender on the case.

“You have the constitutional right to be able to raise an appropriate defense,” Mitch Geller, Sandoval’s attorney, told Colorado Politics.

Sandoval’s mother originally hired Geller and agreed to pay for the necessary elements of her son’s defense. But according to Geller’s petition to the Supreme Court, she contracted COVID-19, which led to “an extensive hospital stay and all but destroyed her finances. She struggles now to meet her financial obligation to not only counsel, but also to her landlord (she is not a property owner), and to support her family.”

Geller stayed with the case despite Sandoval’s mother being “massively behind” on payment, and argued the state would ultimately pay anyway for a public defender if he withdrew.

Sandoval is charged with five counts related to the murder of his stepfather, Dennis Lazoya, in May 2020 at a family gathering in Green Valley Ranch. Both Sandoval and Lazoya were armed, and Sandoval allegedly shot Lazoya more than one dozen times. If convicted, Sandoval could face life in prison without parole.

Geller argued his client has a history of seizures that leaves his mind unclear and confused. Witnesses on the day of the shooting reportedly described Sandoval as being “out of it,” and Geller believed Sandoval deserved a psychiatric evaluation.

In addition to interviewing those present at the gathering, Geller wanted the defense to explore the background of the victim, Lazoya, whom Geller claimed was “often armed and was a very dangerous man.” Having handled Sandoval’s case for nine months, Geller said the evidence to date includes video interviews, investigative reports, an autopsy and “literally thousands” of photographs.

Goldberg, in a January 15 decision, decided he was “not in a position to order state funds be used for expert witness fees” because Sandoval had hired a private attorney.

District Attorney Beth McCann’s office, however, also urged the Supreme Court to find Goldberg had misunderstood the chief justice directive, writing that forcing Sandoval to take a public defender “at potentially great delay and disruption to judicial proceedings” could be mitigated by approving payments to the defense.

The Supreme Court took the uncommon step of considering Sandoval’s request directly, bypassing the Court of Appeals. In an unsigned April 16 order, the justices directed Goldberg to establish whether Sandoval had indeed become indigent, whether there were sufficient funds to pay for his costs and whether reassigning his case to the public defender’s office would be disruptive.

Figures from the Judicial Department showed the state paid nearly $830,847 in fiscal year 2020 to assist indigent defendants with their cases. The expenditures included more than $50,000 for investigators, in excess of $30,000 for expert witnesses and $70,000 for transcription.

The biggest category of expenses, at $468,406, involved mental health evaluations.

This story has been updated with expenditure data.

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