Please Stand By
~For three MSBA members,
notoriety no obstacle to advancing cause of justice~
When convicted sniper John Allen Muhammad dismissed
his court-appointed attorneys a month before the start of his Maryland trial,
opting instead to represent himself, presiding Montgomery County Circuit
Court Judge James L. Ryan presented the defendant with an option seldom used
at the state level: the use of standby counsel.
"I've been on the bench since 1987 – sitting
on the circuit court since '91 – and this was the first time that I
had ever had standby counsel [in my courtroom]," explains Ryan, who
read of the practice – in which court-appointed counsel may offer a
defendant legal guidance but may not address the court themselves – while
poring over law books. "To say that it's infrequently used would be
When Muhammad "confirmed that he would accept
standby counsel," Ryan first turned to the public defender's office.
But when he learned that the law forbade the public defender's office from
acting in such capacity, Ryan, by way of the Maryland State Bar Association
as well as local and speciality bar associations, put out a statewide call
for volunteers to assist Muhammad. Three criminal defense attorneys – MSBA
members J. Wyndal Gordon, Jai Bonner and Russell A. Neverdon, Sr. – answered
"It was so late in the game," admits
"There was so little that we could offer him at the time we arrived in
the case because so many deadlines had been missed and very little was done
to advance his defense."
Moreover, because of the limitations imposed
by the statute, Gordon, Bonner and Neverdon were effectively limited in their
"[They] can't speak on record, can't offer objections," Ryan acknowledges. "They
can only offer advice when the defendant requests it."
"That was probably the most difficult, frustrating
part as attorneys, because we're kind of chained to the chair," admits
"You can't say anything and object as we normally would be able to. That
limitation was just overwhelming."
Nevertheless, Gordon, Bonner and Neverdon took
on Muhammad's case, volunteering considerable time and resources as they
balanced frequent meetings and trips to Montgomery County with their own
busy Baltimore-area practices.
"We were passionate about safeguarding his
explains Bonner. "That was the main focus."
"When you have cases like this, it's easy
‘Ah, lock him up, throw away the key, we don't care if he gets a fair
notes Gordon. "And that was one of the reasons why we got involved: to
ensure that the rule of law – the right to a fair trial, the right to
due process, and even the right to represent himself – was preserved."
Gordon, Bonner and Neverdon immediately set about
delegating tasks amongst themselves, from drafting schedules to preparing
motions to briefing the defendant – even providing him with suitable
"I would like to have had at least two more
people in the rotation, just so that we would have some fresh minds," admits
"It would have made delegating a lot easier because…it was a little
too much for three people to do."
On May 30, 2006, Muhammad was convicted of six
murders in Montgomery County connected with the October 2002 killing spree
in which 10 people died throughout the greater DC/Maryland/Northern Virginia
area. But for his team of legal advisors, there is no doubt that their time,
expertise and other resources were well-spent.
"We marked our place in history – although
some may challenge the side of history on which we fall," says Gordon. "We
all did our part to ensure that constitutional principles are preserved,
that the legal profession is held in high esteem, despite the notoriety involved
in this trial, and that people can still obtain a fair trial – it doesn't
matter who you are."
"The attorneys who provided standby counsel
were professional, experienced trial lawyers," adds Ryan. "They
went all-out in assisting this defendant, and they are a credit to what we
all stand for."
Bonner, who sits on the Baltimore County Bar
Association's Pro Bono Committee, emphasizes the importance of pro bono service
to the community as a whole – particularly the need for attorneys to
handle domestic matters.
"There are literally thousands of domestic
cases that go forward without the appropriate representation, and of course
the judge can only make a ruling based on what has been presented to him
or her," notes Bonner.
"To me, it's like getting away from the
city and going out into the mountains, getting a taste of nature and getting
revitalized, [then] coming back and saying, ‘I'm ready to fight the
fight,'" says Neverdon.
"To me, it's a part of the oath that you took, because advancing the cause
of justice does not always come with a price tag."
From Left: Russell A. Neverdon, Sr., Jai Bonner,
and J. Wyndal Gordon
volunteered so serve as standby counsel for convicted
sniper John Allen Muhammad during Muhammad's Maryland trial.