A fifth of the roughly 100 defendants requiring a court-appointed attorney are going to require new counsel after one of Douglas County’s five public defenders withdrew from his contract effective Oct. 1.
Contracting with a new public defender took on new urgency last week when the Nevada Supreme Court ruled last week that Douglas County will have to conduct its own trial for Wilber Martinez-Guzman.
With the likelihood that the Douglas County District Attorney’s Office will seek the death penalty in the murders of Gardnerville Ranchos residents Connie Koontz and Sophia Renkin, two defense attorneys will have to be appointed to represent him.
On Tuesday, Douglas County District Judge Tod Young appointed Justin Clouser to represent a woman who is working a diversion program.
Young said the other four contract attorneys were unwilling to take over the added burden, which includes around 60 cases in East Fork Justice Court.
“The county’s differences with the contract attorneys should not affect the right to counsel,” Young said, thanking Clouser for his help.
On Thursday, county commissioners approved a $1.3 million transfer to establish a new indigent defense budget.
As part of the effort, the county would contract with former prosecutor and defense attorney Derrick Lopez to serve as coordinator of the new department.
County Manager Patrick Cates said the county expects it will be reimbursed for expenses in excess of $875,155.
The 2019 Nevada Legislature created a Department of Indigent Defense Services to oversee criminal defense services across the state in response to a Nevada Supreme Court ruling. The Supreme Court ruled that indigent legal services aren’t provided equitably by the counties.
In 2021, the Legislature establish an account to reimburse counties for costs beyond those expended for services.
“The goal of these changes is to ensure indigent persons receive fair representation similar to any other person without undue influence from the courts or budget restraints,” County Manager Patrick Cates said in his report to commissioners.
According to the contract, Lopez is an independent contractor through Sept. 30, 2022.
Lopez served as a contract defense attorney himself for a dozen years and has a similar amount of time as a prosecutor. He is a 1983 graduate of Stanford University.
Douglas County has four contract defense attorneys: Kris Brown, Matthew Ence, Maria Pence and Brian Filter.
Unlike larger jurisdictions, the county does not have a public defender’s office. Douglas has contracted with attorneys to provide indigent legal services since 1992. Brown, Pence and Filter all worked for the Douglas County District Attorney’s Office before becoming defense attorneys.