Thursday, March 13, 2014

Did a Lawyer's Defense of a "Dirty CSI" Taint his Defense of a Killer?Attorney says "No."

"These were two different cases.  It never crossed my mind there would be a connection."--Defense Attorney Steve Lefler

When attorney Steve Lefler stop representing an accused murderer and start representing one of the crime scene investigators who helped put his client in jail?  Did the lawyer under cut one client in the service of another?  

Attorney Steve Lefler (right) talks to
reporters outside the courtroom
Convicted murderer Chris Edwards and his father think so.  On the witness stand Lefler, at times emotional, said "absolutely not. It did not have any impact in how I defended Chris Edwards."

Whether Lefler had a conflict of interest as two different homicide cases overlapped is one essential question as Edwards maneuvers to get a new trial.  He was convicted in 2009 of murdering Jessica O'Grady in his bedroom.  Her body has never been found.  A jury had no problem believing she had been murdered and Edwards was responsible. In the collective mind of the jury the quality of the criminal forensics work left room for no other conclusion. All appeals have been rejected.
Months later David Kofoed, the CSI who lead the evidence collection, was indicted by federal and state authorities for planting evidence in an unrelated double homicide in Murdock, Neb. In that case two innocent men were, for a time, accused of a murder they did not commit. It was Kofoed's bogus blood smear evidence was partly responsible for their indictment.  Lefler took Kofoed as a client to defend him; work which overlapped with filing appeals for Edwards. Kofoed was guilty and sent to prison.

At a March 13 hearing in Omaha Edwards' defense team laid out the justification for a new trial.  Known as an evidentiary hearing, it gives someone convicted of a crime an opportunity to raise new evidence not introduced at the original trial. The judge will decide if there is reason to re-try the case.

Edwards lead into court.
Seven years after presiding over the first trial Judge Russell Derr again heard testimony.  Two things were strikingly different. Edwards had a clean cut and preppy look in 2007. He walked into court this time in shackles, dressed in an orange jail jumpsuit with wavy brown hair flowing over his shoulders.

Even more startling was seeing Edwards' former defense attorney, Steve Lefler, on the witness stand.  He all but conceded the man he once defended was a murderer.  The evidence, Lefler testified, "was overwhelming." It was a much different picture than the vigorous defense Lefler previously brought to court.

The defense team in place now, Jerry Soucie and Brian Munnelly, raised a two-pronged attack. First, they have suspicions Kofoed planted blood evidence in the truck of Edwards' car and on other items found in the garage.  Those theories are summarized earlier in a legal brief offered the judge.  (Read NET News coverage of their case)

Most of the first day of the hearing focused on the second claim:  Lefler had a conflict of interest while preparing Edwards appeal when the attorney took on Kofoed as a client.
Soucie quoted pre-trial depositions in which Lefler questions Kofoed and refers to him as "a friend" and complimented his CSI skills. On the witness stand Lefler said the references were more reflective of a professional relationship than social friendship and a tactic he often used with many law enforcement officials to get them to feel comfortable and volunteer information helpful to his clients.

Questioned later by a Douglas County prosecutor, Lefler was asked if his strategy at for Edwards was influenced by any friendship. Lefler answered: "Of course not."

"If I thought Dave was dirty, if I thought he planted evidence, I would kill him in the courtroom," he added.
Apparently the convicted killer's father, Bob Edwards had suspicions about the attorney's loyalty and communicated it directly to Lefler. Lefler claimed the father said "becaue I was friends with Dave Kofoed... you screwed my son over."

Lefler claimed he was fully committed to his client and the Edwards family while preparing the case. "If I had a loyalty to anyone it was to Bob Edwards.  I promised myself I would leave no stone unturned" in preparing for the trial.
As for Kofoed's alleged discovery of blood in the trunk of Edwards' car, Soucie argued its a key element in convincing a jury that a homicide took place.  Prosecutors emphasized the suspected role of the Edwards car at the original trial, giving the jury the way to understand how the body was removed from the home and later dumped somewhere.

Edwards new defense team argues there are suspicious similarities in the impressive discoveries Kofoed made in the Edwards invetigation and days earlier at the scene of the Murdock killings. If one was a fake. Perhaps there was another.
Lefler took heated exception to Soucie's version.  "I will professionally disagree," Lefler said, leaning forward.  "The most damning piece of evidence was that mattress in the basement." A full size photo of the mattress, stained and deeply saturated with blood identified as O'Grady's blood, sat on an easel in the line of sight of the jury through much of the trial.

Late in the afternoon David Kofoed took the witness stand.  Court was adjourned after some scene setting questions, setting the stage for more direct questions on Friday.