SLO public defender’s office gets new funding despite malpractice claims

By JOSH FRIEDMAN

The San Luis Obispo County Board of Supervisors awarded new funding to a law firm that provides contract public defender services to the county, even though the firm has recently been sued twice for malpractice, including once over its representation of a mentally ill defendant who ultimately died in jail.

On Tuesday, the board of supervisors approved funding that will allow San Luis Obispo Defenders to add one full-time attorney to its office. The addition will cost the county about $120,000 in the current fiscal year and $152,000 annually thereafter.

County supervisors approved the request for additional funding at a time in which there is a record number of local murder cases. The SLO County District Attorney’s Office is currently prosecuting seven active murder cases, and it is investigating another five. There has also been an increase in capital murder cases, requiring San Luis Obispo Defenders to expend more resources.

But, the fresh funding also comes as San Luis Obispo Defenders faces legal battles of its own. Paula Canny, who represented the family of Andrew Holland following his jailhouse death, has twice in the last year filed suits against San Luis Obispo Defenders. Canny filed one of the lawsuits on behalf of the family of Russell Hammer, another mentally ill man who died in the SLO County Jail.

In Nov. 2018, Hammer’s family sued San Luis Obispo Defenders for malpractice. The suit alleged lawyers Patricia Ashbaugh, who heads the law firm, and Ron Crawford breached their duties as practicing attorneys and left Hammer to “languish and to die in SLO County’s unsafe jail.”

Hammer stabbed his wife at a Morro Bay recreational vehicle park. Hammer’s wife told Morro Bay police officers her husband suffered from physical and mental health issues and asked them not to arrest him. After a local physician concluded Hammer was suffering from dementia and psychosis, officers booked him in SLO County Jail with his bail set at $100,000.

During his arraignment, Ashbaugh represented Hammer, who was too ill to attend. Ashbaugh did not request a hearing for either bail reduction or a no bail supervised release. After a prosecutor requested a no contact order with Hammer’s wife of 25 years, Ashbaugh did not object, according to the lawsuit.

Ashbaugh also failed to inform the court of Hammer’s mental illness, his psychical ailments and that Hammer had no criminal history, the suit alleged.

Later, Crawford, who took over the role of representing Hammer, did not attempt to get his client released from jail. In the days leading up to his jailhouse death, Crawford was suffering from cellulitis in his leg, yet no one from the public defender’s office went to the county jail to visit him.

On Nov. 27, 2017, Hammer died from a blood clot that dislodged from beneath the infection.

This year, Canny sued on behalf of John Wyman, who claims his court-appointed public defender failed to fully investigate his case before urging him to plead guilty. Wyman, a 52-year-old veteran, was initially charged with three felonies after he allegedly resisted three San Luis Obispo police officers last year. Wyman spent 10 months in custody and then pleaded guilty to a misdemeanor charge of resisting a peace officer. 

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