A Seattle lawyer will help defend a 38-year-old woman accused of killing her mother after one of the original attorneys withdrew from the case Wednesday.
Attorney Matt Rutt told the court that client Tashia L. Stuart doesn't want him to step down, but he cited a potential conflict of interest as his reason for leaving a year into the case.
"This is a tough decision by myself. I don't normally abandon clients ...," Rutt said. "It's in my client's best interest that I withdraw."
Eric Hsu, who manages the bicounty Office of Public Defense, told Judge Cameron Mitchell that Peter Connick has been appointed to assist co-counsel Bob Thompson. Connick's appointment will need to be accepted by the judge.
Thompson was not at the hearing because he was in federal court on another case.
Stuart is charged in Franklin County Superior Court with first-degree murder with aggravating circumstances for the March 2011 death of her mother, Judy Hebert.
Her trial was moved Wednesday to Sept. 12 because of the ongoing investigation and testing of evidence from the scene, and the attorney change.
Franklin County Prosecutor Shawn Sant proposed the five-month delay, saying he thinks that is realistic.
He still is trying to coordinate with lawyers for Stuart and her estranged husband, Todd Stuart, for a time that their experts can oversee testing at the Washington State Patrol Crime Laboratory. Sant previously informed the court that a couple items of DNA evidence only can be tested once so nothing will be left for the defense to test independently.
Thompson is lining up his expert for the testing and Karla Kane, who represents Todd Stuart, hasn't yet confirmed with Sant if she wants someone there, he said.
Todd D. Stuart, 48, is accused of conspiring with his wife to try to kill Hebert during the month before her death.
He is charged with attempted first-degree murder, but has been warned he could face a murder charge if he doesn't resolve the case before the trial. His trial currently is set for April 25 but also is expected to be postponed.
The couple and Tashia Stuart's 7-year-old daughter moved to the Tri-Cities to live with Hebert in January 2011.
On the day Hebert died, Tashia Stuart and her mother reportedly argued about a $300 withdrawal Stuart made without permission from Hebert's account. Stuart has claimed self-defense, saying she shot her mother after Hebert came at her with an ax.
Rutt told the judge he believes there may be an issue of prosecutorial misconduct relating to witness tampering that needs to be internally investigated.
Rutt claims the Tashia Stuart's daughter gave a statement the day of the shooting that "strongly supports the defense theory of the case" that the victim was trying to kill Stuart, but her statement "changed significantly" in a follow-up interview with a Pasco detective.
He said the girl gave information in the second interview that only could have come from police reports, and he suspects that was leaked from police to the girl's relatives and relayed to her so she would change her story.
Rutt said he disagreed with the defense team assigning a former Pasco cop -- private investigator Macario Chavez -- to look into the department he had been with for around 20 years, and said in the end it could jeopardize his own malpractice insurance.
Rutt added that the Office of Public Defense disagreed with his analysis of the situation, so he said he needed to do what was best for himself and not jeopardize his practice. Mitchell allowed Rutt to withdraw.
After the hearing, Hsu told the Herald that Thompson asked for Connick to join the case because of the Seattle lawyer's grasp of DNA.
Connick worked with Thompson on the case of Vicente Ruiz, the man convicted in December 2010 of killing five people inside a Pasco auto body shop in 1987. Connick also helped defend Kevin Hilton, the Richland man who twice has been convicted of killing his landlords.
Hsu said Connick will serve in more of an advisory role in Tashia Stuart's case, only making the drive to Franklin County for significant hearings. He will be paid the standard $75-per-hour contract fee for homicide public defenders but there will be an initial cap of $7,500. At that point, Hsu will review what additional work needs to be done on the case.
The Office of Public Defense has been working under a new system where only one lawyer is appointed to a homicide case, but Hsu said he made an exception for this case since Stuart started out with two attorneys.
Other Tri-City lawyer were considered but Hsu said financially it "works quite well for local taxpayers" because Connick will have less involvement than a Tri-City attorney since he won't attend every court hearing or meetings with investigators. Hsu also said he agreed with Thompson that Connick is appropriate because of the "special complexities" in Stuart's case involving forensics, particularly DNA.
"Our No. 1 concern is to protect the rights of Ms. Stuart," Hsu said.
-- Kristin M. Kraemer: 582-1531; email@example.com