by Monte McCoin
In May 2018, jurors in a Newton County Circuit courtroom awarded $600,000 to a man who spent 17 years in a Missouri prison before his conviction was overturned by that state’s supreme court.
Dwight D. Laughlin won the verdict in a malpractice lawsuit against his public defender, Dewayne Perry, and Ellen Flottman, the attorney who handled his appeal. A third attorney who had represented Laughlin, James Martin, was cleared of liability in the matter.
Laughlin’s suit, filed by attorney William Fleischaker in 2011, argued the lawyers who had represented him in his 1993 post office burglary case failed to analyze jurisdictional issues related to his prosecution and subsequent conviction as a persistent offender.
The suit alleged that had Laughlin’s arrest been prosecuted as a federal crime based on an exception to a law that classified the Neosho Post Office, in particular, as a “building erected or acquired by the federal government prior to 1940 and remaining in continuous use by the government” and thus subject only to federal jurisdiction, Laughlin would likely have only faced a four-year sentence.
“Both of [Laughlin’s attorneys] thought (the law intended) concurrent jurisdictions — that it could have been prosecuted in state court or it could have been prosecuted in federal court,” Fleischaker said. “But nobody bothered to check it out.”
Fleischaker said his client felt vindicated by the verdict. “He was frustrated because he kept telling people, ‘You need to look at this,’ and none of his attorneys did,” Fleischaker said.
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