Court of Appeals suspends law license of Baltimore lawyer

Judges say Middleton was incompetent in several criminal trials

July 27, 2000|By Andrea F. Siegel | Andrea F. Siegel,SUN STAFF

A Baltimore lawyer who is a former assistant federal prosecutor and former deputy director of the Legal Aid Bureau had his law license suspended yesterday by the Court of Appeals.

Michael G. Middleton, in private practice since 1988, received a suspension of at least three years. In a 16-page opinion, the state's top judges said he was incompetent in representing several criminal defendants and had been found in criminal contempt in November for lying to a Baltimore County judge to win a delay in a trial.

In that instance, Middleton maintained that he mistakenly believed he was ordered to be in a Baltimore court on an unrelated case - not just on standby - and so asked the county judge for a postponement, according to the opinion.

In January, Middleton was placed on three years' supervised probation with an 18-month prison term suspended. Conditions of probation included surrendering his law license for a year and undergoing alcohol and drug counseling.

In yesterday's 5-2 ruling, the Court of Appeals majority wrote that his handling of one case was so troubling that prosecutors agreed the defendant deserved a new trial, that the judge in another case felt Middletown was so ill-prepared that she delayed the trial, that he failed to show up for another trial, and that three times a judge told his clients that "they should obtain other counsel."

The dissenting judges, Irma S. Raker and Dale R. Cathell, wanted Middleton disbarred for "repeated misconduct and incompetence." He's had two reprimands, one in 1996 and one in 1998.

Whether the suspension will lead to a flurry of requests by Middleton's former clients for new trials based on claims of poor representation by him is unknown.

Last year, Middleton was the defense attorney in the high-profile murder trial of Dontae Spivey, a defendant whose cases spotlighted troubling delays in Baltimore courts and led to court system reforms.

Convicted in May 1999, Spivey is serving a life sentence for the September 1998 execution-style killing of a teen-ager. The fatal shooting took place while Spivey was out on bail in a 1995 murder case. Over more than three years, the trial had been postponed a dozen times.

In January 1999, a city Circuit Court judge dismissed the 1995 charges after a Maryland appeals court ruling that limited a trial court judge's discretion to postpone a trial past the six-month speedy-trial deadline.

Last spring, after Spivey and a co-defendant were convicted of the 1998 murder, Middleton said the prosecution pushed hard to assure a conviction because of what happened with the 1995 case. "They wanted Mr. Spivey and they got him," Middleton said then.

City prosecutors denied doing anything different for Spivey's trial.

The appellate decision was reversed, and Spivey and his three co-defendants were charged again in the 1995 killing. Spivey's trial is set for next month. His co-defendants were acquitted this spring in a trial in which police accidentally destroyed evidence, one witness vanished, another was slain and a third recanted.

Middleton said yesterday that he was "shocked" at the Court of Appeals ruling against him. But he had not seen the top court's opinion and said he could not comment on what it said.

"I'm devastated by it, first of all. I am totally surprised," he said. He said he was under a "voluntary suspension" and felt that he was being punished twice.

He said he had hoped for a chance to present evidence to the court.

But according to the court's ruling, he had chances but neither responded to the allegations nor appeared at the city court hearings for his case.

He did appear before the Court of Appeals. He told the judges that he was unaware of the hearing dates because he was abruptly evicted when his landlord's mortgage was foreclosed. He found his belongings on the sidewalk.

The judges wrote that Middleton knew he was accused of wrongdoing because an investigator for the Attorney Grievance Commission served the papers on him last year. Middleton did not tell the courts, which kept sending notices to his former address, that he had moved.

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