Supreme Court suspends lawyers

Steve Korris Nov. 29, 2010, 1:17am

Becnel III

Supreme Court Justices suspended lawyers Daniel Becnel III and Gerard Torry for a year each, but the Justices cut nine times as much slack to Torry.

They deferred 11 of Torry's 12 months, putting him back in business in 30 days, but Becnel was sidelined for nine months. They deferred three months of his suspension.

When Becnel and Torry regain their licenses, they must practice for a year on probation and under supervision.

They took money from a suspect's mother and a convict's brother, performed little or no work, and kept the money when clients asked for refunds.

Torry eventually repaid $15,000 to Elaine Sias.

Becnel still owed Jody LaCombe a portion of a $5,000 fee as of Oct. 19, when the Justices suspended him and Torry.

LaCombe retained Becnel to appeal a criminal conviction for brother Owen LaCombe.

Becnel took the case though he lacked any experience in post-conviction relief.

He read the court file, conducted research, and found no argument that would work.

He didn't report his research to the brothers.

The impatient prisoner filled out a habeas corpus petition and sent it to his brother, who presented it to Becnel.

Still seeing no hope of success, he filed the petition in federal court anyway.

A magistrate judge recommended dismissing it as untimely, further finding LaCombe didn't exhaust state court remedies and failed to file a memorandum.

Becnel didn't oppose the recommendation, and a district judge dismissed the petition.

The brothers complained to the Office of Disciplinary Counsel, where a committee recommended suspension for nine months and restitution of $5,000.

The committee found that prior discipline for similar conduct aggravated the penalty.

A disciplinary board recommended stronger discipline, citing Becnel's refusal to acknowledge the wrongful nature of his conduct.

They proposed a year and a day, meaning he would have to apply for reinstatement.

In his favor, they decided he could keep a portion of the fee.

Neither side liked the result, so the Supreme Court had to decide.

"He violated duties owed to his client and the legal system and caused actual harm to both," the Justices wrote.

"Aggravating factors include prior disciplinary offenses, vulnerability of the victim, substantial experience in the practice of law, and indifference to making restitution.

"In mitigation, we find the following: absence of a dishonest or willful motive, full and free disclosure to the disciplinary board and a cooperative attitude toward the proceedings, character or reputation, and remorse."

Torry accepted $35,000 from Sias, to represent son Donald Sias for $15,000 and another suspect for $20,000 on cocaine possession charges.

After Torry arranged a plea deal for the other suspect, a judge told him his continuing representation of Sias created a conflict of interest.

He dropped the case but kept the fee.

Sias's mother and their new lawyer asked for a refund and didn't get it.

When they complained to the Office of Disciplinary Counsel, Torry answered that he didn't have the money.

Investigators found two previous clients with similar stories involving smaller amounts.

The disciplinary office accused him of conversion, but a hearing committee and the disciplinary board disagreed.

The committee and the board recommended suspension for a year with all but 30 days deferred, and all seven Supreme Court Justices adopted the recommendation.

They found prior discipline, multiple offenses and substantial experience as aggravating factors.

In mitigation, they found an absence of dishonest or selfish motives and they found personal or emotional problems.

They noted in his favor that he set up a trust account.

They wrote that he works for Southern University Law School and has reduced the scope of his private practice.

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