In 2018, Harris County, Texas, paid Jerome Godinich, a Houston-based defense lawyer, more than $409,000 to represent people who couldn’t afford to hire a lawyer in 604 cases. Godinich had a reputation of taking on more cases than one lawyer could reasonably handle, and his caseload regularly far exceeded state and federal guidelines. But judges, many of whom received campaign donations from Godinich, kept sending him cases.
One of the clients appointed to Godinich that year was a 66-year-old man named Michael Carter, who was being held without bail on a driving while intoxicated, or DWI, charge. During the three years Godinich represented Carter, he never visited his client and did minimal work on the case, according to a malpractice suit filed Thursday by Carter. By the time Carter’s case was finally dismissed and he was released from jail, he had lost his truck, his credit, his ability to work and his wife, who died while he was incarcerated.
“I just don’t want anybody to go through what I’ve been through,” Carter said in a statement about the suit, which accuses Godinich of violating legal and professional standards of representation. “To sit there every day in jail for years and never hear from your lawyer? Nobody deserves that.”
Godinich, who has been licensed to practice law in Texas since 1987, has no public disciplinary history. He did not respond to a request for comment.
Carter was arrested on July 10, 2018, and charged with one count of felony driving while intoxicated. According to the malpractice suit, he was neither driving nor intoxicated at the time of his arrest, but was sleeping in his car without his keys in the ignition. The first lawyer appointed to represent Carter, who could not afford to hire the lawyer of his choosing, retired in November 2018. Godinich was assigned to take over the case.
Carter received only four visits from a member of Godinich’s team during the three years he was represented by Godinich — and never from the lawyer himself, according to the complaint. The first visit was by a legal assistant, who came more than eight months after Godinich was appointed to the case. Although Carter repeatedly tried calling and writing to Godinich, he was never able to get a response. He believes his lawyer’s phone was not set up to take calls from the jail, the complaint stated.
Carter wrote letters to Godinich, asking him to request an independent test of the blood sample taken when he was arrested. Carter does not know whether Godinich complied, but the lawyer never shared any information about such a test, according to the complaint. Carter also advised Godinich to contact several potential witnesses who could testify on his behalf and to file several motions — none of which happened. When Carter’s sister tried to intervene, Godinich told her he had already done everything Carter requested.
“Any reasonable lawyer representing Carter would have, at minimum, regularly met with Carter confidentially, discussed the facts and law with Carter, developed a legal theory to defend Carter’s case, sought to have the blood sample independently tested, investigated witnesses, sought speedy resolution of the case, and performed numerous other legal tasks to advance Carter’s interests,” the complaint said. “On information and belief, Godinich did none of these things.”
The stakes were high for Carter. He was on parole when he was arrested and if convicted of the DWI charge, he risked being sent back to prison for decades. “The only options for representing Carter would be either to get the case dismissed or to take it to trial,” the complaint said.
Carter tried advancing the case on his own. In February 2020, more than a year after Godinich was appointed to the case, Carter wrote to the court that he had been unable to discuss the case with his lawyer. He filed more than 15 motions on his own and even sought to have Godinich replaced.
While his case languished, Carter struggled in jail. His walking cane was taken away from him, forcing him to limp around in pain and eventually use a wheelchair. Carter, who has high blood pressure and high cholesterol, remained in jail during the first two years of the COVID-19 pandemic, causing him “to experience additional fear and isolation,” according to the complaint.
On Feb. 15, 2022, after more than three-and-a-half years in jail, Carter told the judge that Godinich had never asked for his side of the story, the complaint said. When he explained that the keys were not in the ignition when the police approached and that there was a significant delay between his arrest and blood testing, the case was dismissed.
Carter’s case “cannot be proven beyond a reasonable doubt at this time,” the case record states.
Carter learned his case was dismissed from the bailiff. His own lawyer never told him, the complaint said.
Godinich filed for payment for just eight out-of-court hours of work on Carter’s case, despite representing him for three years. Carter believes they spoke about five times, always during court dates and never in a confidential setting where they could discuss strategy. Godinich and his colleagues have ignored several requests from Carter for his case file, according to the complaint.
When he was finally freed from jail, Carter returned home to a very different existence than the one he had left. He couldn’t work while in jail, so he had fallen behind on payments for his car, home and credit card. His wife died while he was incarcerated and he was not allowed to attend her funeral. He now lives with his sister because he cannot afford his own place.
“Carter lost everything as a result of this case and his deficient representation from Godinich,” the complaint said.
“Carter lost everything as a result of this case and his deficient representation from Godinich.”
– Michael Carter’s malpractice complaint
Although Harris County has a public defender’s office, the overwhelming majority of felony cases are handled by private lawyers who are appointed by the judge overseeing the case. While lawyers in the public defender’s office follow national caseload guidelines, which advise lawyers not to take more than 150 felony cases a year, many private lawyers do not.
Because private lawyers are paid per case, there is an incentive to take on as many cases as possible to maximize income. A 2020 study found that judges appoint more than twice as many indigent cases to private lawyers who donate to judicial campaigns than those who don’t, creating the optics of a “pay to play” system.
A 2013 evaluation of the then-newly established Harris County Public Defender’s Office found that their lawyers “outperformed appointed attorneys with every measure as they achieved a greater proportion of dismissals, deferred sentences, and acquittals, and a smaller proportion of clients found guilty.”
As HuffPost has previously reported, the Harris County Public Defender’s Office does not take any death penalty cases. Instead, indigent defendants facing the prospect of execution rely on the appointment system, where the judge hand-picks the lawyer — who may be juggling hundreds of other cases.
In 2018, Harris County paid Godinich to work on 583 felony cases, one misdemeanor, six felony appeals and 14 capital cases, according to the Texas Indigent Defense Commission, which tracks attorney caseloads. (Capital cases are so labor intensive that a separate Texas public defender’s office that specializes in them recommends attorneys have no more than five active capital cases at a time — with no additional felony cases.)
By the time Godinich was appointed to Carter’s case in 2018, he had already attracted attention for his high caseload. In 2009, the Houston Chronicle reported that two of Godinich’s clients on death row lost their federal appeals because he missed filing deadlines. In each case, he blamed a broken filing machine, an excuse that prompted criticism from the 5th Circuit Court of Appeals.
But that didn’t stop judges from continuing to assign Godinich hundreds of indigent cases a year.
“Mr. Carter sat in jail for years without receiving even basic representation from his attorney, and Harris County taxpayers still wrote him a check,” said Geoff Burkhart, the executive director of the Texas Fair Defense Project, whose lawyer is representing Carter in the malpractice suit.
“Last year, Harris County paid attorneys over $30 million for felony representation, yet—with the exception of the public defender’s office, which handles just a fraction of the cases—there is little attorney oversight. Harris County needs a robust, independent public defense system.”