Granted, there was always a good chance that defending a person charged in the January 6th insurrection was going to have its pitfalls. It’s the nature of the beast, the working of a mind of someone whose grasp of reality was so distorted that he was inclined to be there, to do whatever he did, to buy into the insanity of the conspiracies and lies, in the first place.
But crazy clients are nothing new in criminal law, and dealing with a defendant’s irrationality is part of the gig.
The first Jan. 6 rioter sentenced for a felony charge began mounting a desperate bid Wednesday to unravel his plea agreement, claiming through a newly retained attorney that his signature on the deal was forged.
But the federal judge in the case, Randy Moss, expressed skepticism about the claim and noted it could even put Paul Hodgkins at legal risk, since he said under oath that he had reviewed and accepted the plea deal.
When the judge says he’s “skeptical” and, off the top of his head, suggests that a nifty move could result in “legal risk,” it’s the polite way of telling someone that what they’re doing is going to backfire badly and inure to their great detriment. But then, that’s why defendants are represented by lawyers.
His new attorney, Carolyn Stewart, made the forgery allegation during a hearing called by Moss to address Hodgkins’ claim that Leduc provided ineffective counsel. She said she retained handwriting expert Curt Baggett to review the document and confirmed that it was not Hodgkins’ signature on the agreement. Baggett, she said, would be willing to testify to it in court.
Is it possible that Hodgkins’ former lawyer provided ineffective assistance of counsel? Sure. It happens. Is it possible that somebody, perhaps the former lawyer, “Patrick Leduc, a JAG Reserve officer who later deployed to Qatar, where he is assisting with Afghan refugee rescue operations,” forged Hodgkins’ signature on the plea agreement? Anything is possible, I guess. As for somebody being willing to testify that the signature isn’t Hodgkins’, there’s somebody willing to testify to pretty much anything for the right price or motivation, so that’s not quite as convincing as one might supposed.
But will that win the day?
Stewart suggested that the allegedly forged signature was one of many irregularities tainting the case.
“It’s mind boggling,” the defense attorney said, mentioning that she is attuned to such patterns because of her work as an intelligence analyst in Afghanistan. “These kinds of things keep popping up … I’m floored.”
This could explain more about the intelligence failures in Afghanistan than the case against Hodgkins. In the normal course of defense, the lawyer will go through the plea agreement with his client, discuss and explain what it means, what it involves, what the risks are and what he needs to understand before agreeing to it. Leduc says that’s exactly what happened.
LeDuc said in an email to POLITICO that the claim of a forged signature was “insane” and that he painstakingly reviewed the deal with Hodgkins.
“I went over every single line of that plea agreement with Paul for about three hours to include the factual stipulations and he signed the thing in front of me and then came back and [re-signed] the other form as well,” he said. “Nothing happened in the case without Paul’s consent. I don’t understand any of this this. It is insane and I am just so over it all.”
Could Leduc being lying about having gone through the plea agreement line by line? Lying can happen, but that’s not all that happens since on top of the defendant signing the plea agreement, the judge then goes through an allocution, sworn testimony in which the judge makes inquiries to assure the defendant knows what he’s doing and is doing so of his own free will.
It’s unclear, though, what bearing the allegation has on Hodgkins’ guilt, since he entered the plea in an open court hearing and acknowledged his guilt for the alleged offenses, and Moss ran through many of the provisions of the deal with him.
The judge didn’t opine directly on the forgery allegation Wednesday, but he did note that the reason “a lot of time” was spent on the colloquy with Hodgkins is to “guard against” subsequent claims that the defendant didn’t understand the agreement or the consequences of pleading guilty.
This presents a hurdle that’s really hard for the defendant and his new lawyer, Stewart, to surmount. No matter what else they claim, and how extremely unlikely it might be that so many “irregularities” happened, Hodgkins still went through the usual allocution on the record in open court before Judge Moss. Will Stewart next argue that the judge dreamed the colloquy?
But the underlying question is to what end? Does Hodgkins want to go to trial and see how he does on sentence afterward? Is he playing for the foul, like Sidney and Flynn? Did the reality hit home after he got eight months and somebody inside told him he should go for a Mulligan for some cockamamie reason that eludes rational minds?
It’s his lawyer’s job to tell him of the peril this course presents, and Judge Moss’ admonition only scratches the surface. But is his second lawyer doing her job or pushing him toward the rabbit hole?
Stewart’s allegation appeared to rankle prosecutor Mona Sedky, who called the Florida-based lawyer a “relatively new” attorney and said some of the messages she’d gotten from the lawyer were unconventional.
“I’ve been tolerant of a lot of very strange and and unorthodox communications, for lack of a better word, and I’ve been not putting it in my pleadings and not raising it with the court out of respect to her,” the prosecutor said.
Stewart “joined the bar late last year,” after 25 years in the Army, reaching the rank of Colonel. What she lacks in legal experience should be made up in her life experience. And perhaps that’s why she’s party to her client taking the dive down this particular rabbit hole where the bad choices he’s made can still get much worse. And she may well find herself with him at the bottom of that hole.