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Assistant public defender suspended for ignoring clients

CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- The West Virginia Supreme Court has suspended a longtime Kanawha County assistant public defender after he admitted to ignoring an error that left one of his clients in jail for six months longer than he was supposed to be there.

The court issued an order Wednesday suspending John P. Sullivan's law license for 30 days and placing him on probation for two years, during which he will have to work under a supervising attorney.

Sullivan, a nearly 20-year veteran of the Public Defender's Office, acknowledged repeatedly ignoring clients in cases that involved post-sentencing issues, according to the Supreme Court order.

"I do not put a high priority on post-sentencing matters and tend to postpone working on them in favor of the next hearing and the next trial," Sullivan said, according to the order. "Even if I tell a client that I will get something done by a certain time, I will often fail to meet that deadline."

The order refers to a December 2009 case, in which Anthony White pleaded guilty in Kanawha Circuit Court and was sentenced one to five years in prison. The charges in the case were not clear Wednesday night.

The judge, who was not identified, did not issue a sentencing order in the case until nine months later. The order itself reflected an incorrect sentencing date, which essentially delayed White's parole eligibility for six months.

White and his family told Sullivan about the mistake, and the lawyer promised he would look into the issue, the Supreme Court order states. They heard nothing from Sullivan after that, and repeated phone calls were not returned.

In August 2011, White lodged a formal complaint with the state's Office of Disciplinary Counsel. Sullivan did not formally respond to the allegations, but acknowledged that he knew that White's parole eligibility date was incorrect, and that he had promised his client that he would check court records to make sure, but never did so.

Sullivan said he could "offer no justification or explanation" for ignoring phone calls from White and his family.

The Supreme Court has admonished Sullivan on five occasions for similar conduct, the order states. In one of the most recent instances, Sullivan promised the Lawyer Disciplinary Board that he would be "more diligent in representing his clients.

"However, the record shows that at the same time he was making this pledge, the Respondent was ignoring repeated requests from Mr. White and Mr. White's family to take that action necessary to correct a facially inaccurate sentencing order," the order states.

Kanawha County Chief Public Defender George Castelle said Sullivan will serve his 30-day suspension in a "non-lawyer capacity.

"We expect him to successfully complete the terms of his suspension and return to an active, supervised practice," Castelle said Wednesday. "His cases have been assigned to other lawyers in the office."

Castelle said Sullivan will remain in the Public Defender's Officer after he completes the suspension. He would not comment on Sullivan's performance.

"I'm really not able to say more," Castelle said, "other than to identify his current status."

Reach Zac Taylor at zachary.taylor@wvgazette.com or 304-348-5189.


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