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Monday, Sep 15, 2014
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Jackson: Following alternative path to justice

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DADE CITY -

Once again, Tom Hanlon has done what he had to do. And once again, more than a few of us aren’t too happy with him.

Lucious Edward Smith, accused in the Christmastime stabbing death in Dade City of novice health caseworker Stephanie Nicole Ross, forever 25, won’t be facing a jury anytime soon. As suspected by Hanlon, 59, east Pasco County’s senior public defender, now confirmed by three psychologists — including one representing prosecutors — Smith is not competent to stand trial.

Instead, the 54-year-old ex-con and his sack full of demons will idle at the state mental hospital in Chattahoochee where professionals will attempt the statutory goal of “competency restoration” that render a trial possible.

“I suspect,” counters Hanlon, “Lucious is going to be in Chattahoochee a good long while.”

Anyone incapable of separating the act from the person — a description fitting most of us from time to time — won’t be pleased. Not only does the episode offend civilized sensibilities, there is plenty of forensic evidence, no shortage of witnesses eager to testify and, evidently, even Smith’s confession.

Here’s one problem: “He still thinks he killed a man,” Hanlon says.

It’s instructive to note who isn’t outraged by this turn of legal events: the astonishingly patient family of Stephanie Nicole Ross.

Applying a trademark, if unlikely, policy, Hanlon sought out Ross’ kin to extend his sympathies, outline his perception of (if not his strategy regarding) the case, and vow if it ever came to trial, he wouldn’t so much as hint Stephanie did anything wrong or even remotely ill-advised.

The universe of defense lawyers who practice similar outreach is impossible to quantify, although we suspect in Pasco they could fit comfortably in a booth at the Village Inn. After all, Hanlon says, it’s the prosecution’s job to make victim’s families happy.

Credit Andrea Lyon, noted criminal defense attorney, capital punishment combatant, associate dean at DePaul University College of Law, and author of “Angel of Death Row: My Life as a Death Penalty Defense Lawyer.”

Not long after he became Pinellas-Pasco’s public defender in 1997, Bob Dillinger hauled Hanlon to Seattle for a convention of the National Academy of Criminal Defense Lawyers, where Lyon delivered her epiphany.

“She comes out,” Hanlon says, “and starts talking about how, ‘I resolve all my murder cases through the victim’s families.’ She says she talks to them, answers their questions, offers them sympathy.”

Robust as a Wagnerian opera diva but as energetically profane as a dockworker who’s caught his hand in a winch, Lyon struck Hanlon then as “crazy.” Maybe that outreach stuff works where she comes from, he thought, but anyone willing to put up with Chicago’s weather in winter, Chicago’s Cubs in the summertime and Chicago’s politics year-round — Lyon’s clientele — probably is crazy, too.

Still, despite Lyon’s unconventionality, Hanlon conceded it benefitted from the support of bromide about the uses of vinegar and honey where flies are concerned. The first time he tried it, engaging a victim’s family in a DUI manslaughter case, an uncle who appeared halfway through the trial and sneered, “How do you live with yourself?” caught a backhand across the jaw from the dead girl’s mother.

“I mean, she hit him — wham!” Hanlon says. “She says, ‘Don’t you ever say that. He’s just doing his job.’ See, some lawyers might have tried to put some blame on their daughter, but I’d told them I wasn’t going to do that.

“Ms. Lyon resolved that for me.”

Another victim’s kin helped turn a first-degree stabbing death with capital punishment on the line into a second-degree conviction and 30 years.

“Polite and kind never got anybody in trouble,” Hanlon says. “This way, it’s good for the client, good for the family and good for justice.”

Sometimes, naturally, shells are too hard to crack. The family of Charles “Bo” Harrison, the sheriff’s deputy killed in June 2003 by Alfredie Steele Jr. comes to mind. “Families can be so hurt and mad,” Hanlon says. “Whatever I did, nothing could give them peace of mind.”

But more often than you’d suspect, the honeyed truth is victim’s relatives want their pain acknowledged and their grief respected by someone who’s not necessarily on their side. Hanlon was reminded of that the other day by the priceless grace of those who survive Stephanie Nicole Ross.

“I’ve been meaning to thank Andrea Lyon,” Hanlon says. “I should have done it a long time ago.”

Hanlon’s gratitude is Pasco’s as well. Our hats are off, Counselor.

tjackson@tampatrib.com

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