HUNTSVILLE, Texas -- A district judge has ruled that a Dallas-area man accused of murdering his infant son and the boy's grandmother more than a year ago can keep his chosen counsel, a 25-year-old attorney who graduated from law school just six months before being hired in the case.
Citing the Sixth Amendment, Judge Don Kraemer said that Houston defense attorney Maverick Ray could continue to serve as lead counsel in the capital murder case of Howard Wayne Lewis, 47, as long as that was what the defendant wanted.
Lewis was indicted by a grand jury last November on a charge of capital murder of a child under 10 after DNA evidence linked him to the July 2013 slaying of his son, 18-month-old Aiyden Benjamin Lewis. Autopsies revealed the baby died of asphyxiation and his grandmother, 55-year-old Shanta Crawford, was violently beaten to death with a blunt object.
Lewis nodded his head in agreement as Kraemer announced his decision Tuesday afternoon at the Walker County Courthouse.
"It is his Sixth Amendment right to representation of counsel of his choice and if that, Mr. Lewis, is what you choose to do, then Mr. Ray will be your attorney," Kraemer said.
The District Attorney's office had filed a motion to determine Ray's qualifications to try a capital murder case in which the prosecution was seeking the death penalty. District Attorney David Weeks argued that Ray does not have the experience to serve as lead counsel in Lewis' case, since Ray was only out of law school for about six months when he was hired by Lewis' fiancé.
There were concerns that his lack of experience hampers Lewis' right to a fair trial, thus bolstering Lewis' chance at an appeal for ineffective counsel if he is found guilty.
"This is a violation of ethical responsibility to take this case knowing (Ray) is not qualified," Weeks said. "I understand the Sixth Amendment, but this is unfair to Mr. Lewis and unfair to the state of Texas."
Weeks and Assistant District Attorney Stephanie Stroud questioned Ray about his trial experience. Ray, who had yet to try a criminal case when he was hired to represent Howard Lewis, said he has since tried "seven to eight jury trials." Those cases range from aggravated robbery to driving while intoxicated and sexual offense cases, he said.
Stroud went through the Texas Bar and American Bar associations' qualifications to be a court-appointed defense attorney in capital cases and pointed out that Ray did not meet those requirements.
Jack Stoffregen, chief defender for the Texas Regional Public Defender for Capital Cases office, testified that he contacted Ray about helping with Lewis' case. According to the agency's website, it works with counties to provide "high quality, cost-effective legal services in an ethical, professional, and competent manner," for "indigent defendants" facing the death penalty.
"We indicated to Mr. Ray that he could stay on the case, and we would provide two qualified attorneys, a mitigation specialist and an investigator," Stoffregen said. "We said he could stay on as second chair and participate, but the strategic decisions would need to be made by our lawyers because we have the experience."
Stoffregen added that Ray told him he would talk to Lewis about the offer but Stoffregen never got a response.
Ray said that he has a paralegal and an investigator with decades of experience who will assist him. He also said he would consult the case with his mentor, long-time Houston defense attorney Gilbert Villareal.
"I have help and I have experience," Ray said.
Kraemer had appointed a lawyer who is approved to defend capital cases in Walker County to represent Lewis, but Lewis' fiancé, Sharon Lynch, chose to hire Ray.
"I didn’t want anyone from Walker County," Lynch testified Tuesday.
She said she used the Internet to look for a criminal defense attorney in Houston. Lynch said she talked to "less than five lawyers" before speaking with Ray, who said he would take the case.
Lynch said she knew Ray had not been practicing long, but hired him because he was "fresh and not part of the old boy network." She also said at the time she was under the assumption he was qualified to handle a death penalty case.
Lewis has been in custody in the Walker County Jail since his arrest in October 2013. He is being held on a $1 million bond.
Information for this story was reported by The Huntsville (Texas) Item.