Missouri Supreme Court decides in public-defender immunity case

Gavel Scales Of Justice

ST. LOUIS, Mo. – The Missouri Supreme Court makes a decision on whether public defenders are covered by official immunity. The high court handed down a ruling on Tuesday, June 30, 2020.

The case stems from a jurisdictional question after a man allegedly burglarized a Neosho post office in 1993. The federal government had jurisdiction over the case, but they declined to prosecute. However, a state prosecution commenced.

Dewayne Perry was one of the attorneys assigned to represent suspect Dwight Laughlin in the criminal trial. All attorneys in the case agreed that the state court had concurrent jurisdiction over the case, so the public defenders did not challenge it, according to court documents.

Laughlin was found guilty and sentenced to 40 years in prison.

In his second appeal, he got Ellen Flottman as one of his public defenders. According to a court summary, Laughlin told her his charges originally were federal and gave her cases he believed demonstrated due process laws. Documents state she didn’t want to present a jurisdictional challenge because she believed the state had concurrent jurisdiction.

In 2010, Laughlin filed a petition with the Missouri Supreme Court. The high court voided his conviction, ordering him released on the ground that the state lacked jurisdiction to prosecute his crimes.

Laughlin then sued his public defenders for legal malpractice and won. In 2018, a Newton County jury found against the defenders, awarding Laughlin $600,000 in damages.

The public defenders, including Perry and Flottman, appealed the case. Tuesday, the Missouri Supreme Court released its decision.

“Public defenders are entitled to official immunity because they are public employees whose official statutory duties concern the performance of discretionary acts. The circuit court’s judgment is reversed, and the cause is remanded,” the high court put in decision issued on June 30, 2020.

The Court’s decision is online at https://www.courts.mo.gov/file.jsp?id=161213.