Lawyer Gutierrez agrees to disbarment

Missing funds spurred investigation

illness blamed for irregularities

June 02, 2001|By Sarah Koenig | Sarah Koenig,SUN STAFF

M. Cristina Gutierrez, one of the Baltimore area's most ferocious criminal defense lawyers, has agreed to her own disbarment, marking the end of an accomplished law career.

The state Court of Appeals ordered her "disbarred by consent" May 24, after Gutierrez agreed to resign rather than fight complaints filed against her with the state Attorney Grievance Commission, which investigates allegations of wrongdoing by lawyers.

Reached by telephone yesterday at her home in Towson, Gutierrez, 50, said she suffers from multiple sclerosis. "I am not physically able to keep practicing," she said. "I can barely walk."

She said she was in the hospital for much of the winter and has gone blind in one eye. "Since I can't defend myself against anything, and I can't practice anyway, I decided to sign the consent."

Melvin Hirshman, bar counsel to the Attorney Grievance Commission, said his office took over Gutierrez's client files about a month ago, after another lawyer informed the commission she was too sick to handle her practice.

When she turned over her financial records, the commission discovered that client money that should have been retained in a trust account wasn't there.

At the same time, clients began complaining, he said. About a dozen clients said they had paid Gutierrez, but she had not filed their pleadings in court. Because Gutierrez signed the disbarment consent, those claims will not investigated.

Hirshman said that once the commission finishes gathering her files, stored in three locations around Baltimore, it can start informing all her clients about what has happened. If she cannot repay clients, they can appeal to the state's Client Security Trust Fund for reimbursement.

Lawyer A. Dwight Pettit said the deterioration of Gutierrez's practice was a result of her failing health.

"As she got progressively sicker, she found it increasingly hard to make communications with the clients," Pettit said. "I never got any indication that there was any kind of error or incompetence. It was all about her being sick."

Colleagues described her as a meticulous and tireless trial lawyer who could destroy witnesses on the stand.

"She's a dynamo. There's almost nobody else I would have wanted to represent me," said Louis Curran, a public defender.

William H. Murphy Jr., a top criminal defense lawyer and former judge, met Gutierrez in the 1970s and worked with her on and off for about 20 years. "This is a sad day for a truly great lawyer," he said. "She's one of the best lawyers I've ever seen.

Gutierrez has handled some of Baltimore's most notorious cases, including the defense of former Baltimore Comptroller Jacqueline F. McLean, who was convicted in 1994 in a corruption scandal.

In one of her first cases after leaving the city public defender's office, she defended a Baltimore policewoman accused of shooting her husband six times while he was in bed. She used a battered-spouse defense and saved her client from a first-degree murder conviction. The woman was convicted of second-degree murder.

But between the victories there has been contention. "Let me put it this way," said one Baltimore judge, "controversy always seemed to surround Cristina."

She defended Jacqueline Bouknight, accused of killing her young son. In 1991, lawyers for the boy sought to sanction Gutierrez for advising Bouknight she did not have to disclose her son's whereabouts. He was never found.

When Gutierrez represented John J. Merzbacher Jr., a Catholic school teacher convicted in 1995 of sex offenses against a female student, Gutierrez failed to tell him of a plea offer, said Thomas Pavlinic, Merzbacher's current lawyer.

Elizabeth L. Julian, Baltimore's chief public defender, said that after a career of fighting for others, Gutierrez should take care of herself. "She has always put her clients first. Now it's time for her to put herself first."

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