Toriano Porter

Deadly shooting caught on video. Did overworked public defender cost this man his freedom?

There’s very little doubt that Terrance Blanks shot Rockey Bradley to death after the two men exchanged fire in the parking lot of a convenience store at 27th Street and Indiana Avenue.

Earlier this year, a Jackson County jury found Blanks guilty of second-degree murder and armed criminal action for the deadly 2016 incident. A jury recommended a sentence of 30 years in prison.

The shooting appeared to be an act of self-defense, but Blanks says his lawyer’s caseload cost him his freedom.

The scene was captured on surveillance video, but no audio is available. The two men simultaneously opened fire on each other. Blanks was shot three times and injured. Bradley was fatally wounded.

Blanks contends in a letter written to Jackson County Circuit Judge David Michael Byrn that David Wiegert, a lawyer in the Missouri State Public Defender System, was ineffective during Blanks’ murder trial.

The Kansas City man has requested a new trial or an acquittal based on Wiegert’s ineffective counsel and the discovery of new evidence. A hearing is scheduled for Friday.

It’s unclear how Byrn will handle Blanks’ request — prosecutors say his attorney missed a deadline to file a motion for a new trial. But there’s reason to believe that Blanks is staring down a murder conviction because Missouri’s public defender system is inadequate and underfunded.

Blanks has a constitutional right to effective counsel, but his legal representation did not meet that basic standard. And his case highlights the sad state of the public defender’s office.

The guilty verdict has left Blanks’ family with little faith in the public defender system after hearing testimony and watching video of the shooting during the trial.

“The system is jacked,” said Blanks’ 63-year-old father, Terry. “It’s really messed up.”

Wiegert was not made available to comment on the case. But he argues in court documents that prosecutors failed to disclose the criminal history of a witness, the witness’ drug use and memory loss, as well as a purported deal to help the witness with separate legal matters.

Jackson County prosecutors denied those claims in court papers. They want the judge to sentence Blanks and let the appeals process play out.

Blanks complained to Byrn that an overworked Wiegert missed a scheduled hearing because the attorney had a conflict related to a separate legal case. Court records back the assertion.

Blanks also says Wiegert failed to locate or interview witnesses, failed to do a background check on Bradley and failed to give adequate jury instructions for a self-defense claim.

A witness, Denise Norfleet, testified that Blanks was the aggressor. She was the only person to take the stand other than Blanks, who said Bradley was the aggressor.

Norfleet later recanted under questioning from a private investigator working for Blanks’ family. She told the investigator she was under the influence of prescription painkillers and other drugs when she witnessed the shooting and when questioned by police.

Norfleet’s recollection of the incident should have drawn scrutiny during the trial.

Problems with Missouri’s public defender system are well documented. A Jackson County judge ruled earlier this year that a heavy workload led to inefficiencies in the public defender’s office.

The American Civil Liberties Union filed a $20 million class-action lawsuit in federal court arguing that the state does not spend enough to help poor people present a proper defense in court. A trial is scheduled for October.

Missouri’s public defense system would be laughable if it weren’t borderline unconstitutional. It is the second-worst funded system in the country, allocating a paltry $335 per case, according to Missouri Public Defender Director Michael Barrett.

By contrast, a typical defense attorney charges tens of thousands of dollars to bring a homicide case to trial.

Barrett says the state’s 370 public defenders are burdened with too many cases, leaving defendants who can’t afford an attorney to settle for sub-par legal representation or to sit in jail too long waiting for a lawyer to work on the case.

Barrett couldn’t comment on Wiegert’s individual workload; public defenders in Jackson County average between 150-180 cases each per year. But it’s clear that Wiegert and the public defender’s office did not give Blanks a fighting chance in court.

Public defenders must have resources to do their jobs. When they don’t, the consequences for Blanks and other defendants can be devastating.

Editor’s note: This column has been updated to reflect that a jury recommended a sentence of 30 years for Blanks.