Tom Deadrick wants to be the state’s attorney for Charles Mix County.
As a known quantity with some political capital, he feels he’s a credible threat in the race against Hein, who’s been the county’s prosecutor for over a decade.
Here’s the thing: Mr. Deadrick is also a defense attorney. More specifically, he’s the court-appointed defense attorney for Taylor Cournoyer, one of the two defendants in the county’s highest-profile criminal case.
Cournoyer and his wife are charged with failure to report the death of a child in the case of RieLee Lovell.
If Deadrick bests Hein at the ballot box, he would theoretically inherit the prosecution of a case he’s now being paid to defend.
Welcome to small town lawyering in South Dakota.
Naturally, Deadrick’s appointment as public defender for Taylor Cournoyer could constitute a conflict of interest if he’s elected. Such an outcome would leave the court with some thorny questions about how to best handle the case.
The trial against Cournoyer is scheduled to begin in January. That’s the same month Deadrick would take over as State’s Attorney if he wins the race.
Is it possible he’d be cross-examining the same police officers and Sheriff’s deputies who’d be bringing him new cases to prosecute? Maybe.
Deadrick is aware of this. He brought up his candidacy at a hearing yesterday without being prompted. He told Judge Steven Jensen he’d discussed the issue with Taylor, and Taylor told the judge he’s still comfortable with keeping Deadrick as a lawyer.
Nothing changed on Tuesday, and it might not.
Because Deadrick has already done more than a month’s work, Jensen decided to let the election play out before making any decisions on what to do with potential conflicts. Another lawyer would have to replicate the work Deadrick’s already done.
That would be expensive and likely not in the best interests of Deadrick’s client.
“What we’re talking about is only speculation at this point,” Judge Jensen said. “I’m concerned about switching counsel based just on the possibility of a conflict,” Jensen said.
What is known is that Deadrick couldn’t prosecute the Cournoyer case under any circumstances. The Attorney General’s Office has already signed on to assist Hein as the lead prosecutor in the case. If Deadrick is elected, they’d necessarily lose the cooperation of the Charles Mix County State’s Attorney.
Even if Deadrick stepped away from the case, he have to steer clear. He’s had discussions of consequence with the defendant.
Now, let’s be clear: It’s not altogether uncommon for defense attorneys to run for state’s attorney and switch sides when they win.
Matt Olson, a former Minnehaha County Public Defender who started a law office in Tea in 2010, won the Republican primary for Turner County State’s Attorney this Spring.
I wrote about that race here. Olson won the election outright in the primary, as there was no Democratic challenger for the part-time prosecutor position.
As a private lawyer with his own office, Olson acts as a contracted defense attorney for clients in Turner County and others who can’t afford representation. He said yesterday that he intends to stop taking Turner County defense cases in September and that most of his cases there would be closed by the time he takes office.
Small town lawyers do this in South Dakota. Most counties don’t have public defense offices, which means that courts compile a list of lawyers who can act as public defenders as needed.
Many counties are like Turner County on the prosecution side, as well, in that there is only enough work for a part-time state’s attorney.
Part-time prosecutors do defense work in counties where they aren’t the prosecutor. That’s not unheard of. It’s the nature of business in South Dakota’s small communities.
What seems odd is for a candidate for state’s attorney to be assigned to high-profile cases in the county where they’re running.
Deadrick said yesterday that he wasn’t sure why Judge Bruce Anderson assigned him the Cournoyer case. It’s the only defense case he has in Charles Mix County, he said, as he’s been doing work for Dakota Plains Legal Services on the days court is scheduled in Lake Andes (Tuesdays and Thursdays).
Judge Anderson has not returned a call seeking clarification in the matter.
When asked what happens if he wins the state’s attorney position, Deadrick echoed Jensen: We’ll cross that bridge when we come to it.