BLOUNTVILLE, Tenn. (WJHL) — Megan Boswell may want a new publicly-appointed attorney in her murder defense, but a local public defender said judges usually set a high bar for allowing such changes — and with good reason.
Boswell, who is accused of killing her 1-year-old daughter Evelyn in early 2020, told Judge Jim Goodwin Friday she wasn’t happy with the representation Brad Sproles has been providing for her and wanted another attorney appointed. Sproles, a private attorney who took the case because Public Defender Andrew Gibbons’ office had a conflict, acknowledged Friday that he and Boswell have had some difficulty working together as the case has progressed.
“It sounds like Mr. Sproles felt he could repair the relationship, and I think ethically an attorney has a duty to try to do that, to try to reconcile with the client,” Sullivan County Public Defender Andrew Gibbons told News Channel 11 Monday.
Boswell’s main complaint Friday centered around photos she hadn’t yet seen and disagreements over what witnesses to call. Judge Goodwin wasn’t ready to accept Boswell’s argument that the relationship was “irretrievably broken,” which is the point when, according to ethics rules, an attorney should step out.
“I’ve had situations where you just continually argue with your client and you’re not accomplishing anything and at some point, you know, it’s not in the client’s best interest if she doesn’t trust her attorney, or … just doesn’t feel like that person is capable of handling the case or whatever,” Gibbons said.
Gibbons explained that it’s somewhat rare to reach that point — more often, attorneys are left off cases or changed because they represent a witness in a different case or some other technical issue.
“That’s not an infrequent thing, especially with the public defender’s office, because lots of times we have clients who are going to be witnesses to crimes, or victims, and that always creates a problem,” he said. “You can’t be put in a situation where you’re going to cross-examine someone who last week you were representing.”
When to hold ’em, when to fold ’em
If the Boswell-Sproles relationship continues to deteriorate and she ends up with a new attorney, Gibbons said one thing is certain and another is possible — the outcome will certainly be delayed as the new attorney learns about the case, and the defendant might wind up with a better defense.
“A case like this that has gone on for several years, or what seems like several years… they’ve got to learn what all the evidence is, they’ve got to learn who all the different players in the case are,” Gibbons said. “They’re at a serious disadvantage as far as playing catch up.”
That said, Gibbons has seen mid-case switches work to a defendant’s advantage regardless of how talented the initial attorney was.
“We call certain guys the client whisperer because you’ll have somebody who can’t get along with anybody, but then that one attorney comes in and all of a sudden everything’s fine and he does a great job,” he said. “It is a difficult situation to come into but it can resolve favorably for the client.”
Gibbons said he doubts Sproles would stubbornly remain in this case if he can’t reconcile with his client.
“Brad’s reputation is impeccable,” he said. “He is a fantastic attorney, he’s very smart, which is one of the reasons the judge appointed him on that case.”
In fact, Gibbons said, Sproles has very little to gain externally from trying to stay.
“A case like that, that’s got national publicity, there’s no upside for the defense attorney,” he said. “If you win, you’re a monster; if you lose, you’re an idiot. You’ve got Nancy Grace every night critiquing everything that you do, so I give him a lot of credence for staying in when he had an opportunity to get out.”
Whatever the source of Boswell’s strategic disagreements with Sproles, the ultimate decision-making authority lies with the attorney, not the client.
“The law is pretty clear,” Gibbons said. “Trial strategy is completely in the purview of the attorney — what witnesses to call, what type of defense to present.
“What I generally tell my clients is, ‘you decide where we want to go, but I decide how we get there.’ She may think that they need to call a certain witness, but Brad being as experienced as he is understands that that witness is going to hurt more than it’s going to help, and she’s not understanding that.”
If Sproles and Boswell do pass the “point of no return,” Gibbons said Sproles’s ethical duty will be to keep protecting his client even as he’s on the way out.
“If you don’t at that point step out and say, ‘Judge, Look, somebody else is going to have to take this case over,'” Gibbons said. “Then once the trial has happened, the first thing the client is going to say is, ‘Judge, this guy’s an idiot, I told you he was an idiot, he stayed in the case, and now I’ve gotten convicted.”