Judge fires Gilliam's attorney

June 04, 1994|By Sheridan Lyons | Sheridan Lyons,Sun Staff Writer

A federal judge has fired the attorney handling the appeal of Maryland death row inmate Tyrone Delano Gilliam, saying the defense lawyer paid too much attention to the execution of the late John F. Thanos and not enough to his client.

U.S. District Judge William M. Nickerson Wednesday denied the public defender's motion to appoint Jerome H. "Jay" Nickerson of Rockville to handle Gilliam's appeal in federal court. Jay Nickerson, who is not related to the judge, had handled the appeal in Maryland courts.

In a written memorandum, Judge Nickerson complained that Mr. Nickerson waited to file a federal habeas corpus action until May 26 -- one business day before an execution warrant for Gilliam was to take effect on May 30.

However, the prosecutors and Mr. Nickerson said they had agreed beforehand on the timing of the habeas corpus filing, which would require a defendant to be brought before the federal court as part of the appeals process. Prosecutors also said in advance that they would not oppose a stay of execution.

Gilliam, 27, was sentenced to death in 1989 by a Baltimore County judge for the murder of Christine J. Doerfler, 21, a hardware store clerk who was kidnapped and shot in the back of the head in a robbery that netted $3.

Mr. Nickerson, who has waged a vigorous defense in Gilliam's behalf, denied the judge's allegations and promised to fight the dismissal. "I'm not aware of any court any place in the United States telling a death-sentenced inmate who his attorney can be," Mr. Nickerson said. "No one has seen anything like this."

In his criticism of the defense attorney, the judge said Mr. Nickerson filed lengthy and incorrect pleadings in April, sought out judges in Montgomery County and in Washington, and tried to have the U.S. Secretary of Health and Human Services forbid using the drugs that killed Thanos by lethal injection on May 17.

"It is patently clear to this Court," Judge Nickerson wrote, "that had Mr. Nickerson directed his efforts toward his . . . timetable for the preparation and filing of a habeas petition in Mr. Gilliam's behalf, rather than allowing himself to be diverted in favor of the emergency intervention in behalf of Mr. Thanos, whom he did not represent, that Mr. Gilliam's interest would have been more properly represented."

Noting that he has the authority to appoint defense counsel, the judge said Mr. Nickerson had failed to show his qualifications. The judge said he would appoint another lawyer.

The judge refused further comment on the ruling. His action surprised lawyers on both sides, although none would comment publicly.

Mr. Nickerson vowed yesterday to go to the U.S. Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals in Richmond, Va. Under the Constitution, he said, "A defendant has the absolute right to have the attorney of his choice -- and I'll challenge this. It appears he's removing me from the case altogether."

He said his attempt to block Thanos' execution under Maryland's new lethal injection statute was vital to Gilliam's defense. Thanos refused to appeal his case.

"When the first guy goes under that statute, it makes it harder for everybody else. It's prejudicial; it makes it look as if it's legitimate," Mr. Nickerson said.

Mr. Nickerson, a native of Washington, D.C., said he practiced in Florida for 10 years and handled more than 50 death penalty cases before moving to Rockville six months ago.

"The public defenders sought me out as one of the most experienced death penalty attorneys in Maryland," he said. "This is kind of a throwback to when defense attorneys were named to represent black inmates in the South, and they treated them like Yankee carpetbaggers."

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