You may have the right to an attorney, but just make sure it’s not Dennis Hawver. Why? The Kansas Supreme Court recently voted unanimously to disbar Hawver for what the court called “inexplicable incompetence.” If you were wondering what exactly inexplicable incompetence looks like in the legal profession, Hawver is your man.
Where to start? Try this: During a 2005 murder trial, Hawver described his client—Phillip Cheatham—to the jury as “a professional drug dealer” and a “shooter of people.” Hawver’s unconventional legal reasoning only went downhill from there. Here’s the gist of the defense he mounted for his client in the capital murder trial from the Topeka Capital-Journal:
Hawver said the strategy of Cheatham—who he described as “an experienced and highly street-smart and intelligent criminal” who was a cocaine dealer convicted of killing another “dope dealer”—was to tell jurors that if he had killed two women in 2003, he wouldn’t have left alive a third shooting victim to identify him to police. The survivor was shot eight times by the real gunman to convince her to identify Cheatham as the killer, Hawver said in explaining the trial strategy.
Not only did Hawver leave out evidence that might have exonerated Cheatham—“I had no idea that cellphones had GPS capabilities at that time”—during the sentencing phase of the trial he told jurors “they should execute the killer in his closing argument,” according to the Capital-Journal. In legalese, this strategy is referred to as: reverse psychology. As you might have guessed, Cheatham was convicted of murder and sentenced to the death penalty. Thankfully, the court overturned the conviction and ordered a retrial last year, ruling—in the understatement of the year—that Hawver had failed to represent his client properly. Here’s more from the ABA Journal:
Hawver had never previously tried a capital murder case and had not tried a murder case in more than 20 years … He was unfamiliar with ABA guidelines for trying capital murder cases. At trial, he informed the jury his client had previously been convicted of voluntary manslaughter, even though prosecutors agreed to a stipulation that the client had a prior felony conviction without further details … In an affidavit, Hawver also said he failed to seek dismissal of the capital charge after the Kansas Supreme Court struck down the death penalty scheme.
That appears to be the dictionary definition of “inexplicable incompetence.” The only case that can remotely compete in the inexplicable incompetence department with Hawver’s handling of Cheatham’s defense is when he represented himself. The Kansas Supreme Court unsurprisingly took disciplinary action against Hawver in order to disbar him. During a disciplinary hearing earlier this year, Hawver represented himself before the court—dressed as Thomas Jefferson. The Capital-Journal reported from inside the courtroom, and it wasn’t pretty.
Wearing a white powdered wig, a dark 18th century suit and long white stockings, Hawver sat in the Supreme Court listening to two earlier cases before his disciplinary case was called. Hawver represented himself during the hearing before the Supreme Court and before the disciplinary administrator’s office in November 2013 … Hawver said he dressed as Jefferson, his personal hero, to see whether the Kansas Supreme Court would protect his constitutional rights. “Am I going to get you to protect my rights to defend my client” as I see fit? Hawver said. The First Amendment protects his actions with his clients, and the Sixth Amendment protects the rights of his client, he said. Hawver said he might not have jumped through every “American Bar Association hoop” but he believed Cheatham was innocent … “Phillip Cheatham didn’t complain about my performance. You did,” Hawver said, referring to the justices. “I am incompetent!” Hawver said, banging the lectern with his hand.
The Kansas Supreme Court agreed, unanimously ruling to disbar. Hawver said earlier this year, however, he wasn’t really sweating losing his license because he was planning on leaving the legal profession anyway in order “to devote his time to growing vegetables in an aquaponics garden.” “I don’t think practicing law is productive,” he said.