Defense attorney Frank Housh’s motion for the disqualification of District Attorney Lawrence Friedman from the Antwan Odom assault case was denied, but the attorneys’ gag order was lifted today during oral arguments.
Housh is the defense attorney for Antwan Odom, the Batavia High School athlete charged with cutting Ray Leach with a knife during an alleged argument Aug. 4. Odom is accused of committing assault in the first degree, which carries a prison term of five to 25 years.
In May, Odom turned down Friedman’s offer to for him plead guilty to second-degree assault. The plea would be unconditional and expose Odom to a potential maximum sentence of seven years.
Housh did not feel there was enough of a guarantee from the court that Odom could be tried as a youthful offender and avoid a lengthy prison term, so his client declined the plea offer.
Friedman also filed an order to show cause (a little memorandum asking the judge to take action) in May requesting a gag order on both attorneys after Housh made statements to local reporters that Friedman considered a violation of professional conduct standards.
Friedman also filed an ethical grievance complaint with the state bar.
In response, Housh filed a motion to disqualify Friedman and assign a different prosecutor from an adjacent county to Odom's case. Housh said this motion was to protect his client from prejudice due to conflict of interest since, as he said he sees it, Friedman is prosecuting both him and his client.
Housh said that when Odom chose to not accept Friedman’s plea deal, both he and his client were attacked. He fears that Friedman’s assignment to this case may lower the public’s confidence in the justice system.
Housh said the grievance caused him to retain counsel and assume that every action he took for Odom would be used as evidence against him. Housh said he now represents his client in an unusual manner, such as consulting his personal attorney before consulting with his own client.
Housh insisted he wants to represent Odom but fears he will have to withdraw from the case due to personal, professional and financial costs. He said that his client’s Sixth Amendment right to counsel cannot be upheld if he is protecting himself from legal action. Odom's family and friends nodded their heads in agreement as Housh spoke.
Friedman explicitly opposed the motion. He said there is no merit to Housh’s argument and described it as “nothing short of ludicrous.” He maintained that Housh violated the rules of professional conduct, so it is not logical for the court to remove Friedman as the prosecutor when he was trying to uphold fair trial rights.
Judge Charles Zambito rendered the decision that the district attorney did not demonstrate prejudice nor a conflict of interest and did not act in bad faith when he filed the grievance against Housh. So, the motion for disqualification of Friedman was denied.
In lifting the gag order, Zambito said that neither attorney opposed the gag order but that the local media did contact him to oppose the gag order based on First Amendment/free press grounds.
The Batavian filed a memo with the court objecting to the gag order, using material provided by the Reporters Committee on Freedom of the Press.
Zambito lifted the gag order on the attorneys today.
Judge Zambito reminded the attorneys of the rules of professional conduct regarding extrajudicial statements to the media.
Friedman asked for a deadline for Housh to notify the court of his decision to continue to represent Odom. Zambito did not set a deadline because he trusts Housh will alert the court of any changes as soon as possible.
“With me or somebody else, my client is going to try his case," Housh said outside of court. "We believe strongly that the jury is going to see that this is a clear case of justification. My client was not the first aggressor.
“I think the judge is confident the lawyers understood their obligations. I don’t think I did anything wrong by explaining to the press what my motion was. The judge just wants the case to proceed to trial, and that’s what we’re going to do,” Housh added.
Odom’s trial is slated to begin Aug. 5 in Genesee County Court.