LOUISVILLE, Ky. (WDRB) – The Kentucky Supreme Court has thrown out a Louisville man’s manslaughter conviction because he did not get proper representation -- or was even told about a hearing on whether his defense lawyer was mentally and physically fit to represent him.
Terrence Downs was sentenced to 25 years in prison after being convicted in June 2019 of manslaughter and other charges in the December 2016 shooting death of Ronnie Reed in an apartment on Guardian Court off Preston Highway.
But prosecutors in the case, a judge not involved in the trial and others had questioned the fitness of Downs’ attorney, Brendan McLeod, saying he was acting strange, according to the high court’s unanimous ruling last week.
Jefferson Circuit Court Judge McKay Chauvin, who presided over a separate hearing with McLeod just before Downs’ murder trial began, told a prosecutor "that man should not be operating heavy machinery," according to the ruling.
As jury selection began, the prosecutor in Downs’ case, Assistant Commonwealth’s Attorney Dorislee Gilbert told Jefferson Circuit Court Judge Angela Bisig that she needed to report concerns about McLeod’s fitness to try the case, according to the ruling.
Gilbert said she had witnesses, including Chauvin, who would testify as to their interactions with McLeod.
Bisig said she had already been approached by Chauvin, but that she had not noticed any strange behavior from McLeod.
Still, she agreed to hear the witnesses. But, at the request of McLeod, the hearing took place in her chambers and not the courtroom, without Downs being present, according to the ruling.
While prosecutors and others who knew McLeod testified that he didn’t seem himself - he was not speaking or walking in his usual manner, one attorney said – McLeod told Bisig he was fine, not having any health issues or under the influence of any medication.
McLeod told the judge he was “naturally hyper” and argued that prosecutors had been confrontational in the case.
Bisig found that McLeod was fit to handle the case and ruled against telling Downs about the hearing.
"I’ve been on the bench 16 years and I’ve never had anyone raise an issue like this," she said in her ruling. "I just don’t see enough evidence to remove Mr. McLeod from representing his client."
After breaking for the day at McLeod’s request, he was 30 minutes late for the trial the next day and was reprimanded by Bisig.
The judge asked Downs if he wanted to proceed with McLeod as his attorney and he said he was comfortable with McLeod, according to the ruling, though he noted he was not familiar with everything happening.
"I mean I didn’t really get the full extent of what was going on but he told me a little bit of it," Downs said. "I mean, I don’t know."
After he was convicted, a different attorney for Downs appealed, arguing he had the right to be represented by “conflict-free counsel” during the in-chambers hearing, or, "at the very least, should have been informed of the nature of the inquiry and the court’s findings," according to the ruling.
And while the high court commended Bisig for investigating the allegations, the justices ruled that "the person most affected by the issues raised – Downs – who was on trial for murder" was wrongfully excluded from the hearing as to whether his attorney was fit to represent him.
"At the very least, Downs should have been informed of the allegations against McLeod and given the opportunity to retain independent counsel to advocate his interests," the justices ruled.
The case has been sent back to circuit court.
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