Former state attorney general Phil L. Hansen botched the recent defense of a client so badly the man was deprived of a fair trial, the Utah Court of Appeals has ruled.
In a unanimous decision released Monday, a three-judge panel reversed the theft conviction of James V. Crestani, formerly the sole stockholder in the Alta Title Co., and ordered a new trial.The court's decision was the second in two weeks that reversed a case because an attorney was ruled ineffective. The court did not name the attorney in the other case, which may have been the first time in Utah history a conviction was overturned for that reason.
Hansen could not be reached for comment Monday.
Hansen is a Democrat who served one term as attorney general from 1965 to 1969 and is the attorney currently defending a youth accused of killing the son of movie actress Beverly Todd. He was the last Democrat to serve as attorney general until Paul Van Dam, the current attorney general, was elected in 1988.
In a 12-page decision, the judges said Hansen failed to properly prepare to defend Crestani and failed to tell Crestani's wife he was planning to call her to testify. A jury subsequently convicted Crestani of four counts of felony theft and sentenced him to prison.
"Certainly, there can be no appropriate performance in the courtroom without adequate preparation, and without such preparation, representation is nothing but a sham and a pretense," wrote Judge Regnal W. Garff.
The decision overturned a lower court ruling that Hansen's conduct was more important than his preparation. The Utah State Bar Association also exonerated Hansen after a recent disciplinary hearing on the same matter, said bar counsel Toni Sutliff.
The appeals court said Hansen's most serious omission was his failure to prepare Crestani and his wife to testify.
"As a consequence, (Crestani) and his wife were forced to attempt to recall 5-year-old financial transactions while on the witness stand," Garff wrote. "As a result, (Crestani) and his wife appeared confused and lacked credibility."
Crestani was accused in 1985 of stealing $57,300 from an account that should have been used exclusively for funds held in escrow for real estate closings. The court decision said Crestani told Hansen the money he withdrew was money he had previously deposited into the account out of his personal funds.
Crestani told Hansen the case would require much preparation, including an audit of the account. He agreed to pay Hansen $50,000 for his services.
Hansen subpoenaed records from the bank, but failed to pay the bank's copying charges. As a result, Hansen did not obtain the records until July 5, 1987, two days before the trial. He had asked only for deposit records - not for monthly statements, checks, disbursements or credit and debit memos - and failed to get any records from the months during which one of the four thefts allegedly occurred, according to the court's decision.
The state prosecutor offered to allow Hansen to examine the state's evidence prior to the trial, but Hansen failed to do so. During the trial, Hansen objected to evidence the state presented, claiming he had not been given an opportunity to examine it.
Hansen failed to provide any documents to back claims that Crestani had deposited his own money into the account, and state prosecutors showed evidence that contradicted the memories of witnesses Hansen called.