ELYRIA — Moments after attorney Kreig Brusnahan’s motion to withdraw as counsel in the capital murder case of Jocquez Ross was granted, an unidentified woman in the courtroom gallery told him he shouldn’t “be a quitter.”
Brusnahan turned around in his chair at the counsel table to face her.
“I take great umbrage at that statement,” he said to the woman. “I’m not a quitter, but I’m not a co-pilot on this kamikaze mission, either. Look it up.”
The attorney, who was the first-chair counsel on the death penalty case of Ross, 28, of Lorain, withdrew from the case when his now-former client told Judge Christopher Rothgery that he would no longer be waiving his right to a speedy trial, meaning that the trial must begin within 90 days.
“My understanding is that he (Ross) is not willing to waive (his speedy trial rights), going forward. That puts me in an untenable situation,” Brusnahan said. “I cannot, in good conscience, continue to represent him without having the appropriate amount of time to investigate, do mitigation research, to have the appropriate mitigation expert appointed, to have the psychologist appointed to do a psychological evaluation and to basically properly prepare the mitigation case, should it be necessary.”
Ross was indicted in January 2017 on aggravated murder and other charges in connection with the fatal shootings of Michael Lewis and his wife, Fannie Lewis. If convicted, Ross could face the death penalty.
Last week, defense attorneys and prosecutors in the case were planning to set a trial date of January 2020 until Ross informed Brusnahan of his decision to no longer waive time in the case.
While it’s been more than two years since Ross’ indictment, Brusnahan and his co-counsel, Kimberly Corral, cannot be blamed for the delay, Brusnahan has said. Brusnahan was appointed to the case in September and Corral was appointed in October, according to court records.
Prior to that, Ross had retained attorneys Jack Bradley and Michael Stepanik to represent him in the matter. However, prosecutors notified the court that they had become aware of a potential conflict of interest and asked that both defense attorneys be disqualified from the case.
According to court documents, Bradley had represented Michael Lewis on a drug-trafficking case in 2009. Stepanik was representing Michael Lewis on a drug-trafficking case at the time of the man’s death. Stepanik had previously represented both Fannie Lewis and Michael Lewis’ mother, who was a potential witness in the Ross case.
The court granted the motion to disqualify, but then an appeal on the decision was filed on Ross’ behalf with the 9th District Court of Appeals. The appeals court eventually upheld Rothgery’s decision to disqualify Bradley, and Brusnahan was appointed to the case.
During the hearing Tuesday, Ross told Rothgery that he felt he already had withdrawn his time waiver.
“To my knowledge, in open court, Mike Stepanik stated that I refused to sign a time waiver and I withdrew my time waiver during the months of May and October 2017,” Ross said. “The last time I signed a time waiver was in, I believe, May 2017. Mike Stepanik let the court know that I refused to waive any more time.”
Rothgery said there was no record of a withdrawal of the waiver in the court records.
“I believe he (Stepanik) indicated, and my court reporter will go back and check this, that you refused to sign it, though you had previously signed,” Rothgery said. “He did not indicate that you were withdrawing your previous time waiver, but we will review it.”
The judge then leveled with Ross.
“Understanding that that is your right under the laws of Ohio, the Constitution of Ohio, the Constitution of the United States, here’s what I’ve got to tell you,” Rothgery said. “What you’re seeing right now with Mr. Brusnahan is what we’ve encountered in every phone call we’ve made so far. No lawyer wants to preside over this sinking ship. Do you know why I call it a sinking ship? Because these are the most demanding, time-expending, soul-eating cases lawyers handle. They’re the toughest, requiring the most work, the most effort and the most training of any cases that a defense lawyer handles.”
Rothgery said that all the attorneys he had spoken to up to that point had said they didn’t believe they could be ready to try a capital murder case in less than 90 days and thought that their doing so would be committing “malpractice.”
The judge then told Ross that during his time as a defense attorney and as a judge, he’s seen many people decide to no longer waive time or withdraw a time waiver.
“You know who I’ve seen it for? O.J. Simpson,” Rothgery said. “If you happen to have millions of dollars laying around for jury consultants, private psychologists and mitigation experts who are willing to drop everything and work around the clock between now and May, if you have millions of dollars laying around to hire four or five lawyers, a dozen investigators, that might not be a bad idea. It worked out for O.J. But I’m going to tell you who I’ve seen it work out for since then and before then: nobody, ever.”
Rothgery also questioned why Ross had decided to no longer waive his speedy trial rights.
“I’m not sure where your thought process is … but if you think you’re going to make things tough on these guys (the prosecutors in the case), yeah, to a certain extent (maybe you will),” Rothgery said. “But guess what they have. They have a case that came to them from the police, investigated and with a great deal of the work done already. They have an office full of attorneys. I don’t know what is it, 30 or 40 attorneys? They have a half-dozen investigators that are former police officers. They have the entire Elyria Police Department. They have all the weapons.
“You have two lawyers in the one case we give people two lawyers, who are going to (be) scratching and clawing to, even if we had the January date, get all the information together that they need to defend this case. It would be tight in January.”
Ross then told Rothgery he still wanted to withdraw his time waiver. Rothgery then granted Brusnahan’s motion to withdraw as counsel. Corral said she would remain on as second-chair counsel.
A trial date of May 6 was set, which means Ross now has his speedy trial, but he doesn’t have an attorney to sit as lead counsel on his case. Rothgery said he and his staff would work on finding an attorney for Ross.
“What I’m trying to tell you is that at some point I hope to find an attorney to be lead counsel on this case, but it ain’t going to be easy,” Rothgery said.
“It’s probably not going to be anybody from this county. We’ll have to go to another county. We’ve looked at Erie County and Medina County — nobody there. It’s probably going to have to be somebody else from Cuyahoga County, but I don’t know who because so far all of the ones we’ve talked to have said they can’t do it.”
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