Convicted killer of UNR campus cop seeks new trial
RENO, Nev. (AP) – Lawyers for a Nevada death row inmate say he deserves a new trial because the judge wouldn’t let his first attorneys withdraw from the case based on their concerns he intended to lie on the witness stand.
Thomas Qualls told the Nevada Supreme Court on Monday that just because the earlier lawyers were ordered to remain on the case doesn’t mean Siaosi Vanisi necessarily received the effective representation he’s guaranteed under the Constitution.
Vanisi was convicted of the 1998 hatchet murder of a campus police officer.
The earlier lawyers didn’t present any evidence or witnesses and barely cross-examined the prosecution witnesses, Qualls said.
“The Sixth Amendment affords you more than just having the right to have an attorney sit with you at trail,” said Qualls, who argued that Vanisi should have been found incompetent to assist in his own defense.
“In the state of Nevada there is the right to effective assistance of counsel, which necessarily equates the right of competency. You can’t have effective counsel unless there is adequate reasonable communication” with the defendant, he said.
Prosecutor Terry McCarthy said Washoe District Judge Connie Steinheimer ruled correctly because the evidence was so overwhelming that the lawyers’ withdrawal could not have affected the case’s outcome.
Vanisi was found guilty in 1999 of attacking University of Nevada, Reno police Sgt. George Sullivan with a hatchet in his patrol car. After the killing, Vanisi used the officer’s gun to rob two convenience stores and steal a car. The Nevada Supreme Court confirmed his conviction and death sentence in 2001.
Qualls said there were conflicting accounts of Vanisi’s competence at the original trial, with one psychiatrist determining he was not competent and one psychologist determining he was.
But the psychologist – who unlike the psychiatrist is not a medical doctor – acknowledged he could not speak to the impact Vanisi’s medication was having on him. He also refused to disclose details of his examination of Vanisi, including any of the questions he asked him based on his belief they had to be kept secret, Qualls said.
In fact, Qualls said, Judge Steinheimer relied in part “on her own observation of Mr. Vanisi’s smiling at a joke to determine he was competent.”
“The court’s decision was not based on substantial evidence,” he said.
Qualls said Steinheimer put the defense lawyers “between a rock and a hard place” when they were told they could not withdraw even though they felt there was a conflict of interest given Vanisi’s plans to perjure himself.
“They did not put on an opening argument. They didn’t put on a closing argument. They did not put any witnesses on. With the vast majority of witnesses, they did not cross-examine them at all.”
McCarthy suggested it was a ploy on Vanisi’s part to continue his case indefinitely by informing each new defense team appointed for him that he intended to perjure himself on the stand. He said the judge was right to instruct the defense lawyers that if they aren’t allowed to withdraw, “go ahead and do the best you can do with what they had to work with.”
“They admittedly did not do a lot. They did some cross-examination and were involved in jury selection,” he said. But McCarthy said there is no mention in Vanisi’s appeal of any evidence that could have been offered by more effective counsel.
He said the psychiatrist concluded that Vanisi was competent to assist in his defense but “lacked the motivation to do so.”
“You can provide someone with competent counsel, but the state of Nevada cannot require that prisoner to take advantage of that counsel,” he said.
Qualls said it is not necessary to prove the jury was prejudiced against Vanisi if his constitutional rights were violated. He said there’s no way to know how the case would have gone if his rights were protected.
“It is impossible for an appellate court to know what was in the hearts and minds of those jurors.”