Citing a conflict of interest, Muscogee Superior Court Judge Doug Pullen has removed former prosecutor Stacey Jackson as the defense attorney for accused killer Michael Jason Registe.
“Although I respect the court’s decision, I’m extremely disappointed,” Jackson said. “We feel that this infringes on Mr. Registe’s right to have counsel of his choosing.”
Registe is charged in the July 20, 2007, execution-style slayings of Randy Newton Jr., 21, and Bryan Kilgore, 20. Indicted on Aug. 26, 2008, Registe was detained the next day on the island of St. Maarten in the Netherlands Antilles. He was returned to Columbus this past July 23. Jackson appeared as Registe’s defense counsel on Aug. 4. A special prosecutor protested that Jackson had a conflict of interest, having served as an assistant district attorney from August 2000 through July 2008, after which he went into private practice with the Columbus firm of Hagler, Henderson, Jackson & Walters.
Jackson’s involvement in the case as a prosecutor was limited to his meeting twice with a U.S. Marshal to get Registe’s telephone records. Jackson at that time asserted: “It is believed that the requested telephone records ... will provide leads which will aid in locating and apprehending the fugitive.”
In his order removing Jackson as Registe’s defense counsel, Pullen wrote that a conflict of interest was not the sole consideration: The court had to weigh any “appearance of impropriety” and “the societal interest and confidence in the court system.”
Citing court precedents and state guides for professional conduct, the judge concluded: “The long-standing rule is that a lawyer is disqualified from representing a party against a former client in a matter that is substantially related to the lawyer’s prior representation.... In the instant case, it is not a question of ‘substantially related,’ it is a fact Mr. Jackson did actual and documented work on the murder case.”
Jackson argued that Registe knew of the potential conflict and still agreed to Jackson’s representation. Pullen decided this was not sufficient justification to allow it, He cited an 1852 decision, Gaulden v. State, in which the Georgia Supreme Court wrote of the inherent conflict in having a prosecutor switch sides in a case upon leaving office: “If he knows the vulnerable points in the case, derived by his official connection with it, there are many ways by which those points might be made available to the defendant on his trial....”
Pullen determined Registe’s right to choose Jackson as his defense counsel is “outweighed by countervailing considerations,” including a conflict of interest, “the appearance of impropriety,” and “public confidence in the court system.”