One man's case from start to finish: Five attorneys and five months in jail included
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When Akinjo Akinwale was arrested in March, he expected to be held in the Allegheny County Jail for a few days at most before he could post bond and work out the charges.
He ultimately pleaded guilty to two summary counts -- the least serious possible category of crimes -- and was sentenced to six months probation. But not before he spent five months locked up.
Mr. Akinwale was arrested March 10 on the University of Pittsburgh campus after staff members in Benedum Hall saw his belongings in a room that was supposed to be locked and wondered why he was there.
When they confronted him, the police report said, he attempted to leave. The staff members stopped Mr. Akinwale, and physically restrained him -- although he attempted to get away from their grasp -- until police arrived.
Because he was not a Pitt student, and had no reason to be in the room, he was arrested. Pitt police charged him with aggravated assault and simple assault against the staff members, as well as receiving stolen property, defiant trespass and harassment. The felony aggravated assault counts were withdrawn when Mr. Akinwale waived his preliminary hearing on March 23.
Still, he was held in the Allegheny County Jail on $25,000 bail.
That bond situation was complicated by an outstanding warrant for Mr. Akinwale for a probation violation out of California for failing to pay required fines.
Because there were extradition orders, Mr. Akinwale was held on a fugitive detainer of $100,000. William Stanislaw, an assistant public defender, told him before his scheduled preliminary hearing that Mr. Akinwale should waive extradition. He did, which caused California to revoke his bond entirely.
Over the next few months, as he attempted to work out the charges in Pittsburgh, Mr. Akinwale's family tried to find an attorney in California to address the extradition order.
They eventually learned that if they paid his outstanding fines, the extradition detainer would be lifted -- and Mr. Akinwale could be released from jail.
Had it been done months sooner -- for example, before his preliminary hearing -- Mr. Akinwale could have asked his judge in Allegheny County to reduce his original bond, and he could have been released from jail much earlier.
Instead, he remained in custody for five months.
Following the waiver of his preliminary hearing, Mr. Akinwale's first Common Pleas Court date was scheduled for May 27.
On May 9, Allegheny County Assistant Public Defender Jaclynn Kearney entered her appearance in the case, but on May 20, that changed to Assistant Public Defender Hart Hillman.
Mr. Akinwale was scheduled to have his first pre-trial conference before Allegheny County Common Pleas Judge Donna Jo McDaniel on May 27.
Mr. Hillman was not there, so Ms. Kearney stood in for him. She tried to get Mr. Akinwale to plead guilty, even though he insisted he'd committed no crime. He had never met the lawyer before.
"She has no idea who I am, about what the case is, when she's trying to get me to plead," Mr. Akinwale said.
The case was postponed that day. In the months after, he attempted to write to Ms. Kearney twice but got no response.
He tried to write to Mr. Hillman three times, and called the public defender's office multiple times as well.
"I couldn't get through to him," Mr. Akinwale said. "I could only leave messages on the phone."
He estimated he tried to contact an attorney at the public defender's office 10 to 20 times between March and August.
At one point, with no response from the PD's office, Mr. Akinwale resorted to filing his own, handwritten motions to Judge McDaniel.
"For five months, I have not been visited or spoken to by the public defender, Hart Hillman...," he wrote. "I take issue that I have not had a chance to talk with Mr. Hillman about my case. Also that I have to write my own motions without the advice of an attorney."
When his case was listed on June 20, Mr. Hillman (who was off work due to injury, according to the case file) had another public defender, Rebecca Hudock, stand in. The case was postponed for four more days. At that next hearing, Mr. Hillman was out again, and so Ms. Kearney represented him.
Again, he said, she wanted him to plead guilty.
He refused, and the case was again postponed -- this time until Aug. 18. In the meantime, Mr. Akinwale went back to jail.
At the Aug. 18 hearing, again Mr. Hillman was not there.
"I was pretty much expecting the lawyer assigned to me would not show up," Mr. Akinwale said.
Instead, another public defender, Sammy Sugiura, stood in. Again, he tried to get a postponement, but Judge McDaniel refused.
Mr. Akinwale said he wanted to go to trial, but Mr. Sugiura told him if they did, the case would have to be tried that day.
The only alternative was to plead guilty. The prosecution offered pleas to just the summary counts. Mr. Akinwale didn't want to take them because he didn't want the conviction on his record, but he didn't want to go back to jail either.
So he took the pleas.
"I had no idea they were going to keep me here for five months," Mr. Akinwale said.
Mr. Hillman said he had a fall in June and was taking heavy pain medications, which required him to call off of work.
"I did use a lot of sick days, but again, it was not by design," he said. "I've been ill a lot this summer."
Mr. Hillman said he remembered the defendant's name because it was unusual, but that he didn't remember receiving any communications from him.
"Anything with respect to my absences is truly attributable to my health," Mr. Hillman said. "It has nothing to do with me trying to avoid my responsibilities."
Chief Public Defender Michael Machen said he could not comment on individual cases or on the attorneys who handled them.
"I don't condone you not showing up. I don't condone you not meeting with your client," he said. "We're not fungible."
Mr. Machen said that in every case -- regardless of charges -- the public defender should do his or her best.
"Everybody should get the same caliber of representation," he said. "Every case should be handled the same way.
"If you start with that premise, you never really lose."
First Published October 16, 2011 12:00 am