For nearly six months, convicted home invader Glenn Sunkett tried firing Mendo's top public defender, Linda Thompson, who represented Sunkett during his trial last June. Thompson, Sunkett has said, did little to build his defense and was almost wholly responsible for his conviction: She didn't contact many of his alibi witnesses; she didn't file any motions to suppress questionable evidence; she didn't challenge jurors that should have been challenged; she didn't call an expert witness who Sunkett says he'd paid to have flown from Nevada.
And that's just for starters, he says.
Sunkett was found to have engineered the kind of home invasion that's ballooned over the last decade and plagued Mendo's growers—a robbery in which several armed thugs hopped on the highway in Oakland and drove north to pot country. This particular robbery, which unfolded on the Mendo coast just north of Fort Bragg, was especially brutal: a blowtorch was used to compel hostages and a man was nearly killed after getting his head bashed with a pistol.
Cops pinned more than a dozen charges ranging from kidnapping to robbery on Sunkett; he faces life in prison.
Sunkett has claimed innocence all along. He argues that he's a black man convicted by a lily white jury in a lily white county in a court where everybody's a little too cozy (and white). So shortly after his conviction, he set about arguing that Thompson had provided him with “ineffective” assistance. The resulting closed hearings lasted several months, with Judge Ron Brown ruling that Thompson's alleged screw-ups weren't so bad that she should be fired from his case (Thompson hasn't responded to interview requests from the AVA).
So Sunkett tried another tack: He said he'd represent himself. Earlier this month, Judge Brown approved the request. Then he changed his mind, saying Sunkett wasn't “competent” enough to handle such a complex case. So on Tuesday, Brown appointed former prosecutor, defense attorney and DA candidate David Eyster to represent Sunkett in his request for a new trial.
Which Sunkett isn't thrilled about. In court Tuesday, he said it would be a conflict of interest for a local defense attorney close to the public defender's office, which Thompson runs, to represent him. Then there's the DA candidate problem. “This is a guy who's trying to get in the same office as the DA that's going against me now,” Sunkett said in an interview from jail on Tuesday. “There's got to be a conflict.”
Plus, Sunkett says he's got another attorney—an attorney from outside Mendo's cozy little court. Bay Area lawyer Stuart Hanlon—famous for representing Black Panthers and SLA members—agreed to take on Sunkett's case at the same rates as a local defense attorney contracted by the county, Sunkett said in a statement in court. (Outside the courtroom, Eyster said that Hanlon had agreed to work for the same rates, though he'd also asked to be reimbursed for fuel expenses.)
Judge Brown, however, wasted no time in denying Sunkett's request for out-of-county representation. Eyster is Sunkett's man—unless, of course, Sunkett rejects him. In which case, Eyster said, there'll be more motions, more hearings, more delays.
“I'm good at what I do. All I ask is that he gives me a chance,” Eyster said. “This case has turned into a procedural nightmare. I've got to figure out why.”
Still, Sunkett's Thompson problems apparently aren't over. Sunkett said Thompson is yet to send him many of the files he would have needed to represent himself—an assertion Thompson disputed in court. When Eyster asked the judge to order Thompson to hand over those files, Judge Brown declined, saying the request should be made informally.
In court Tuesday, prosecutor Jill Ravitch was clearly irritated with the state of her case. Noting that she'd won this conviction last June, Ravitch said, “At some point we're entitled to have this case resolved.”