18-Year-Old Hangs Himself, Lacked Lawyer
Case spotlights state’s constitutional crisis, inadequate funding for appointed counsel.
Vann-Marcouex was facing a maximum of 65 years in prison for allegedly participating in an armed home invasion and robbery. Vann-Marcouex denied involvement in the crime. He had been in jail for at least 11 days, and he still did not have a lawyer.
He qualified for representation by the State Public Defender’s Office (SPD), which provides lawyers for very low-income defendants. A lawyer from that office represented him during his initial appearance, where bail was set at $25,000, but no one had been appointed to handle his case after that.
“I have been calling the Public Defender’s Office every single day, and they make it – I get on the phone with them, and they’d laugh,” Vann-Marcouex said at the end of the preliminary hearing, according to a transcript of the proceeding. “When I called them yesterday and I asked them how is it I don’t have a public defender and I got my court in less than 24 hours, and she is, like, right. How is that an answer, right? How is that an answer?”
“Well, you have to deal with them on that,” Wolf responded. “I can only do the hearings that are before me.”
Wolf also did not appoint a lawyer for Vann-Marcouex, either, even though he should have done so.
“I don’t understand how this is enough evidence,” Vann-Marcouex said after Wolf bound him over for trial.
“Okay,” the judge responded. “That will be something you can discuss with your attorney.”
Vann-Marcouex hanged himself in the jail that night. It was the fifth suicide in two years in the Wood County Jail.
“Agency staff made approximately 300 calls and emails to private attorneys certified to take SPD cases before an appointment was ultimately made on Aug. 14,” Kraft said in an email. “The Order Appointing Counsel was filed with the court on the same day.
“In cases in our more rural counties, the difficulty in locating a private bar attorney is fairly typical,” Kraft said. “What is less typical, however, is the court proceeding with a preliminary hearing without the benefit of an attorney. Defendants benefit from having an attorney with them in court. Attorneys not only have the skills necessary to protect the rights of their clients, but they are also able to guide them through the criminal justice system.”
The Sixth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution guarantees defendants in criminal cases the right to effective counsel. The Wisconsin Supreme Court has specifically ruled that defendants are entitled to counsel at preliminary hearings.
But Vann-Marcouex, who had never been in serious trouble before, was unrepresented as a prosecutor described the state’s case against him. When he did try to talk, the judge cut him off.
It is impossible to draw a line directly from the young man’s lack of representation to his suicide, but a lawyer could have helped Vann-Marcouex deal with the overwhelmingly stressful situation he faced, said Chad Lanning, president of the Wisconsin Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers.
A lawyer can put things in context and “give them that hope that all is not lost,” he said. Law enforcement may presume defendants are guilty and treat them that way, or frighten them with worst-case predictions in attempts to scare them straight.
While court and law enforcement officials often emphasize the maximum penalties a defendant faces, a lawyer can give them a more realistic, less dire picture and explain legal defenses and a basic strategy of how they will unfold as the case moves forward.
Vann-Marcouex wanted a lawyer. He just didn’t get one, a fact acknowledged by the prosecution.
“I did have a brief off-the-record conversation with Mr. Vann-Marcouex,” Assistant District Attorney Leigh Neville-Neil said at the beginning of the preliminary hearing, according to the transcript. “He indicated he applied and qualified for a Public Defender. He has been calling them repeatedly and has not been assigned counsel yet, just so the Court’s aware.”
“Okay,” Wolf responded. “That’s my understanding, Mr. Vann-Marcouex, though, in fact, what the Court is required to do by law is to have this preliminary hearing done within 10 days when someone’s in custody on a cash bond, such as yourself.”
Wolf did not raise the possibility of a court-appointed attorney, nor did Neville-Neil, who is now on leave.
Wolf declined to answer written questions from this reporter. Wood County District Attorney Craig Lambert did not respond to written questions.
The lack of legal representation for defendants in criminal cases who cannot afford to hire a lawyer is creating a constitutional crisis in the state. The SPD appoints private bar attorneys to handle cases when it cannot do so because of excessive caseloads or potential conflicts of interest. The low pay the office can offer – $40 an hour, the lowest rate in the nation and not enough to cover the average lawyer’s overhead costs – means more and more lawyers are turning down cases. The state Supreme Court earlier this year refused a request to increase the rate.
Judges are supposed to appoint lawyers at county expense at $70 per hour if no other lawyer is available. “If lawyers are unavailable or unwilling to represent indigent clients at the SPD rate of $40/hour, as is increasingly the case, then judges must appoint a lawyer under SCR 81.02, at county expense,” the State Supreme Court said in its order declining to increase the $40 rate.
Wolf instead explained that the state would outline its evidence to show probable cause that Vann-Marcouex committed the three crimes with which he was charged: armed robbery, burglary, and child abuse (a 17-year-old was struck with a gun during the home robbery).
Prosecutors “have to introduce that type of evidence so I feel comfortable enough that the case can proceed with that probable cause finding, so I am going to go through and hear the evidence here today just to see if it meets that standard,” he said, according to the transcript. “If it doesn’t, the case would get dismissed. If it does, you are in no different position than you were in when you walked in here.”
Wolf continued: “You do have the right to ask questions of the officer, although if you had an attorney here, they would tell you not to do so because anything you say is being recorded here today on the record and could be used against you, and you clearly wouldn’t want to give up your right for self-incrimination by making some statements that could be used against you. Do you understand that then, sir? Do you understand that.”
“Yeah,” Vann-Marcouex replied.
Later, the judge told Vann-Marcouex that he had a right to present evidence, but “I have to make a decision in the light most favorable to the state, and obviously you’d be giving up any right to self-incrimination if you did so. Do you wish to present any evidence?”
“I mean, I was watching my nephew that night,” Vann-Marcouex said. “My sister isn’t here right now, I don’t see her, but, um –”
The judge cut him off. “You have to present evidence through testimony here, not make an argument, but no attorney would tell you to do that with each of the charges you are facing here because, again, I have to do it in the light most favorable to the State, all right? Do you wish to present anything now or not?” Wolf said.
Vann-Marcouex shook his head.
That was his last court appearance.
It was the same day he got his lawyer.
That same night, jail staff found him in his cell, where he apparently tried to hang himself. He died a few days later.
Margo Kirchner contributed to this story.
Gretchen Schuldt writes a blog for Wisconsin Justice Initiative, whose mission is “To improve the quality of justice in Wisconsin by educating the public about legal issues and encouraging civic engagement in and debate about the judicial system and its operation.