Local attorney loses public defender's contract after allegation of impropriety

Steve Garrison The Daily Times
The Daily Times

FARMINGTON — Local defense attorney Eric Morrow lost his contract with the Public Defender's Office in July over an allegation that he requested $5,000 in cash from the family of an indigent man accused of murder.

The alleged request for money was in a jailhouse letter written by Jacob Beach in February.

Chief Deputy District Attorney Dustin O'Brien said the letter was obtained by the San Juan County Sheriff's Office and sent to his office in May to aid in the prosecution of Beach for second-degree murder in the slaying of Farmington resident Sharolyn Keown.

Morrow denied accepting any money from the Beach family in an interview on Friday. He said the Beach family hired his co-counsel in the case, Sharon Pettus, and paid her to help represent Jacob Beach.

The letter states: "I have 2 lawyers now one is a fine ass chick. They keep trying to get more money from my parents. We already gave them 5,000."

Morrow provided The Daily Times a representation agreement signed by Pettus and Beach in January for $5,000, as well as signed affidavits from Pettus, his secretary, and a private investigator who works for Morrow attesting to the fact that Morrow was not involved in the decision to hire Pettus.

Beach's father, Matthew Beach, further said in an interview Saturday that he did not pay Morrow any money for his representation in the case. He said he was unable to discuss the case any further because he is contemplating a lawsuit against the District Attorney's Office and the city of Farmington.

Morrow said that the Beach family approached him and asked if it would help to hire a co-counsel in the case. He said a female attorney at the table would help during the trial.

He said that a woman at the defense table, even a secretary, can help sway female jurors, particularly if, as in the Beach case, a man is accused of harming a woman. "The overwhelming thing is that she is a chess piece at the table during the trial," he said. "That is huge."

Asked why he did not request that the Public Defender's Office appoint a second attorney to help with the case, Morrow said he did not believe they would do so.

"They are required to provide what is essential, but what is essential is one attorney, not two," he said.

Morrow said he has previously turned down money offered by clients.

"When I was on the public defender's contract, it was routine for people to offer me more money to do a better job, and I always said no," he said.

Morrow admitted that he is currently in a romantic relationship with Pettus, but said the relationship developed after she became co-counsel on the case.

Morrow and Pettus also recently opened a law firm together in Farmington.

Beach, 21, was arrested in November 2012 after being accused of shooting Keown, 18, on Nov. 5, 2012, at the Hummingbird Trailer Park in Farmington, according to the criminal complaint. Beach was unable to pay for his legal defense and was provided free counsel by the state of New Mexico.

Morrow was contracted through the public defender's office to provide counsel in the case after Beach's first attorney, Cosme Ripol, recused himself in September 2013 because of a conflict of interest.

Beach reached a plea agreement on June 20 and was found guilty of voluntary manslaughter, a third-degree felony.

He was sentenced to four years in prison on Sept. 29. Morrow continued to serve as Beach's attorney, despite losing the public defender's contract.

Beach's letter, dated Feb. 14, was included as an exhibit in a response to a motion filed by Assistant District Attorney Steven Johnston on June 17.

Morrow claimed that Jacob Beach did not know what he was talking about. He said Johnston and the Public Defender's Office were attacking him based on personal vendettas and called Johnston a "dirty" prosecutor in the interview.

"An important fact to remember, if the public defender didn't like the work I was doing, then why didn't they remove me from the case for the last three months?" he said.

District Attorney Rick Tedrow provided a written statement on behalf of his office in regards to Morrow's allegations.

"Upon learning that money may have been paid by a public defender client's family to his public defender our prosecutor notified the District Public Defender," Tedrow wrote. "We did not know if misconduct occurred and passed the allegation on to the appropriate agency."

Johnston said in September that he sent Beach's letter to Public Defender Matthew Cockman on May 15.

Cockman could not be reached for comment Friday.

Johnston said Cockman then forwarded the letter to Lee Hood, the director of legal counsel at the Law Offices of the Public Defender, located in Albuquerque.

Hood's secretary confirmed that the office investigated Morrow and said the defense attorney lost his contract with the Public Defender's Office in early July. Hood did not respond directly to a request for comment.

Complaints against attorneys are referred to The Disciplinary Board of the New Mexico Supreme Court.

Bill Slease, the board's chief disciplinary counsel, said that, by law, he could not comment on whether Morrow is being investigated.

However, he said no formal charges have been brought against Morrow since he has been practicing in New Mexico.

Morrow said he is always concerned about the financial viability of his law firm, but did not believe that losing the public defender's contract would destroy his business.

"We provide good, excellent legal work for people," he said. "I know that I earned a good reputation as a defense attorney, so I still get plenty of criminal cases."

Steve Garrison covers crime and courts for The Daily Times. He can be reached at 505-564-4644 and Follow him on Twitter @SteveGarrisonDT on Twitter.