Lawyer guilty of stealing from child's trust fund

September 22, 1992|By William Thompson | William Thompson,Staff Writer

CHESTERTOWN -- A Kent County jury yesterday deliberated almost four hours before convicting a well-known Eastern Shore lawyer on two charges of stealing more than $10,000 from a client's trust account over a 20-month period ending in fall 1990.

James J. "Jay" White III faces a possible prison sentence of 20 years and near certain loss of his license to practice law, a career he began nearly 29 years ago. Visiting Caroline County Judge J. Owen Wise will pronounce the sentence, expected in November.

White admitted on the witness stand yesterday that he withdrew money eight times from the bank account of Larry Steward Jr., now 12. But he said he never intended to deprive the youth of the money put into an account for him after his father died in 1981.

A 53-year-old lawyer with a reputation as a capable courtroom advocate for his many blue-collar clients, White said he had been drinking heavily -- up to three cases of beer and a half-gallon of liquor a day -- during the period he dipped into his client's fund.

The drinking confused his ability to think rationally and accounted for his client's belief that he was doing nothing wrong when he "borrowed" the youth's money, said defense lawyer G. Mitchell Mowell.

White put more than $14,000 into the youth's bank account after a secretary and another lawyer in the firm told White in early 1990 they had seen a bank statement indicating something was wrong with the boy's bank balance.

Special prosecutor M. Teresa Garland, who handled the White case because the defendant had once been married to the mother of the Kent County state's attorney, argued that White had planned to keep his client's money before his co-workers confronted him.

"He took thousands and thousands of dollars in walk-around pocket money . . . and all the while a 7-year-old boy was losing his future," Miss Garland said.

After the boy's father died in a car accident in 1981, Marlene Steward, Larry's mother, asked White to place $5,000 in an interest-bearing account for her son.

When Mrs. Steward died in 1989, White closed Larry's account in one Chestertown bank and deposited the money in another. Miss Garland said White put his own name, mailing address and Social Security number on Larry's account. The boy later was adopted by an uncle.

Miss Garland said White withdrew as much as $2,000 on several occasions over the next 20 months. Most of the money was deposited in his law firm's bank account, but White kept several thousand dollars for personal use.

She described White as a man who could not be trusted, a characterization Mr. Mowell did not dispute.

"That may be true," Mr. Mowell said. "In this case, he did something that was wrong, no doubt about it."

But, he argued, White had not committed a criminal act because he never intended to keep the money.

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