Holdsclaw's prospects take positive turn as Atlanta's top defense lawyer takes over

December 12, 2012 - 7:55am
Chamique Holdsclaw, in happier days, came out of retirement to start in 25 games for the Atlanta Dream in 2009. Jennifer Lacy, Holdsclaw's former girlfriend and the victim in the alleged assault for which Holdsclaw is facing five felony charges, came off the bench for Atlanta that season. Holdsclaw's fate now depends at least in part on Lacy's willingness to agree to a pretrial diversion or prosecution on lesser charges. (Photo by Scott Cunningham/NBAE/Getty Images, courtesy Atlanta Dream)

Chamique Holdsclaw, in happier days, came out of retirement to start in 25 games for the Atlanta Dream in 2009. Jennifer Lacy, Holdsclaw's former girlfriend and the victim in the alleged assault for which Holdsclaw is facing five felony charges, came off the bench for Atlanta that season. Holdsclaw's fate now depends at least in part on Lacy's willingness to agree to a pretrial diversion or prosecution on lesser charges. (Photo by Scott Cunningham/NBAE/Getty Images, courtesy Atlanta Dream)

Unnoticed by most, the grim legal situation facing former WNBA All-Star and Tennessee All-American Chamique Holdsclaw has quietly grown considerably brighter over the past two weeks as she has entrusted her fate to the hands of Atlanta’s top celebrity attorney.

The Olympic gold medalist has been charged by the Fulton County District Attorney with five felony counts relating to an incident in which Holdsclaw is alleged to have placed a bag of gasoline-soaked clothing inside a vehicle belong to Tulsa Shock forward -- and Holdsclaw's one-time Atlanta Dream teammate and former girlfriend -- Jennifer Lacy. Holdsclaw is accused having then followed Lacy from a workout at an Atlanta church gym, attacked Lacy’s vehicle with a baseball bat after she had parked, breaking out both the driver’s and rear passenger’s windows, and fired a nine-millimeter firearm into the vehicle through the broken rear window before fleeing the scene. Lacy, who according to the allegations outlined in police affidavit in support of the arrest warrant, was seated in the driver’s seat throughout the alleged incident, but was not physically injured. As a condition of her bond, Holdsclaw is subject to ankle-bracelet monitoring, as well as a court order requiring her to keep away from Lacy, her family and her close associates.

On the surface, nothing of moment appeared to have changed in the case between Holdsclaw’s initial court appearance, a bail hearing, on Nov. 16, a day after her arrest, and her second court appearance earlier this month for what is called in Georgia an All-Purpose Hearing. The District Attorney informed the court that “the case is currently under investigation pending indictment,” according to Yvette Jones, director of public affairs for the Office of the Fulton County District Attorney.  That status remains unchanged at this time.

Patrick Sullivan, replacing Steve Weiner, Holdsclaw’s original lawyer, represented the embattled star at the hearing. And with no disrespect to Mr. Weiner, the moment Sullivan formally entered his appearance as Holdsclaw’s new counsel, the picture changed dramatically for the one-time superstar who watched her once-promising basketball career disintegrate as she grappled with what she has since disclosed has been a life-long battle with depression. 

It’s not so much anything Sullivan, a young attorney just two years out of the University of Miami School of Law, did at the hearing, which was essentially a purely ministerial status conference. But Sullivan is an associate at the Atlanta firm of Garland, Samuel & Loeb, one of Georgia’s leading criminal defense and personal injury firms. Edward T.M. Garland is the highly regarded sixth-generation lawyer whose name stands at the top of the letterhead of the prestigious firm established by his grandfather, who, according to the firm resume “traveled the back roads of Georgia, defending white and African-American clients, often saving the latter from ‘mob justice,’" and perpetuated by his father Reuben, an attorney known for his flamboyant style and courtroom theatrics. And it is Ed Garland, whose firm brings 70 years of successful criminal defense experience to the table, who recently confirmed to Full Court that he will now be running the show for Holdsclaw’s defense.

Full Court was first to report that Holdsclaw was planning a change of counsel after learning, shortly before Thanksgiving, from a member of his staff that Weiner had been relieved days after Holdsclaw had been forced to spend the night and most of the following day in the Fulton County jail after surrendering herself to authorities. Enter Ed Garland, a product of the University of Georgia and its law school, who has been listed in every edition of The Best Lawyers in America since the publication began in 1984. An inductee of the exclusive American College of Trial Lawyers and the International Academy of Trial Lawyers and an officer or board member of too many bar associations to mention (the State Bar of Georgia among them), Garland has been listed as one of Georgia’s “Superlawyers” every year since 2004, named among Georgia’s Top 100 lawyers annually from 2006-20012, and among the state’s Top 10 attorneys every year from 2009 to date.  

On the criminal defense side, the firm’s caseload runs the gamut from sophisticated white-collar frauds to drug charges, firearms violations, sex offenses, murder cases and other violent crimes. Its client list is a virtual Who’s Who of celebrities from rap stars, DJs and record producers to authors and doctors who have run afoul of the law – especially when it comes to sports figures facing criminal prosecution:

  • Pittsburgh Steelers' quarterback Ben Roethlisberger, who recently saw all charges dropped in connection with an alleged sexual assault of a 20-year-old college student after Garland convinced prosecutors the charges could not be proved beyond a reasonable doubt.
  • Baltimore Ravens' all-pro linebacker Ray Lewis, who avoided murder charges in the stabbing deaths of two men outside an Atlanta Super Bowl Party, pleading guilty to a single misdemeanor count of obstruction of justice.
  • Lewis’ teammate Jamal Lewis, an all-pro running back, sentenced to just four months in a minimum-security prison and two months in a hallway house, after pleading guilty to lesser, among more serious, federal drug charges.
  • Atlanta Thrashers' forward Dany Heatley, MVP of the 2003 NHL All-Star game, who with Garland’s help received three years probation on a guilty plea to a misdemeanor traffic violation after being charged with first and second-degree vehicular homicide and additional offenses that could have drawn as many as 20 years in prison on conviction.
  • Former Atlanta Falcons' halfback and back-up quarterback – later turned sportscaster – Harmon Wages, who was acquitted of multiple federal felony charges of cocaine dealing, and convicted instead of a single misdemeanor cocaine possession offense.
  • Tennessee Titans cornerback Adam “Pacman” Jones, who served no time after entering the equivalent of a “no contest” plea for felony obstruction of a police officer.

And now, perhaps one of the most naturally gifted, and tragically troubled, women to play the game of basketball, Chamique Holdsclaw. As this year’s edition of Superlawyers put it: Ed Garland is "the lawyer you go to if you’re in serious trouble in the South.” And Holdsclaw -- who faces a minimum of a year in jail if convicted of any of the five offenses charged in the criminal complaint currently pending against her, up to a maximum 60 years in state prison if she is convicted on all charges, were the sentences to run consecutively -- is most definitely in serious trouble.

Garland is well-known as a master storyteller, as well as a master of the evidence, who leaves no stone unturned in his investigation of the facts underlying his cases, a trait that may well have helped him secure the pretrial dismissal of the charges against Roethlisberger. Garland is also a passionate -- and compassionate -- advocate who throws himself heart and soul into the cause of his clients while making no attempt to prejudge their factual guilt or innocence. He has described a criminal trial as a kind of war: “a contest of knowledge, skill, psychology and stamina” in which there is no substitute for knowing more about both the facts and the law than anyone else in the courtroom. But as much as Garland is a brilliant trial warrior, he is also a problem solver – one who knows that sometimes “you may help a client most by telling him he needs to plead guilty and get the best resolution he can.”

Speaking to Garland, one can hear instantly why he has been so successful in his chosen career as a trial lawyer: You just can’t help but be struck by his gentility and sincerity, as well as his wit and intelligence. Even in moments when you’re aware you might be being played perhaps just a little bit -- Garland is also well-known for his skillful use, some might call it manipulation, of the media in the cause of his clients – the man is so charming you barely mind it.


Ed Garland headshot Ed Garland, one of Georgia's top 10 lawyers, is Chamique Holdsclaw's new attorney. (Photo courtesy Garland, Samuel & Loeb, PC)

At least for now, Garland has chosen not to discuss the substance of this case – or allow Holdsclaw to discuss it – publicly, other than to tell Full Court that he and his firm are currently “investigating the incident” and “hope to arrive at a satisfactory solution.” But at least to those versed in the elaborate mating dance among prosecution and defense, victims and witnesses, that will ultimately determine whether any criminal case proceeds to trial, Garland’s decision to stand silent for now in and of itself suggests quite a lot, especially in light of his well known propensity to work the media to his client’s advantage, at times even putting his clients on camera to avow their innocence.

That Garland is not taking to the courthouse steps to tell the assembled press that Holdsclaw is looking forward to her day in court and the opportunity to clear her name certainly does not mean that Holdsclaw is in fact guilty. Or that Garland thinks she is. Or that he will not fight vigorously – and perhaps even successfully -- to clear her name should the case proceed to trial. But to any experienced defense practitioner, Garland’s decision to take a more subdued approach strongly suggests that he and his firm are hard at work behind the scenes, hoping to see that this case never gets that far. Especially for first-time offenders -- and according to court records, this is Holdsclaw’s first known brush with the law -- there are several options available.

Short of a decision by prosecutors simply to dismiss the charges outright, the best of all possible worlds for Holdsclaw would be pretrial diversion, a program authorized by state statute but created and administered by the prosecuting attorneys of each judicial circuit that provides an alternative to prosecution. The guidelines governing admission to such a diversion program vary significantly from one jurisdiction to the next, but most commonly they are employed in cases involving youthful offenders and other first offenders, charged with drug possession or relatively minor, nonviolent offenses – shoplifting, for example.

Holdsclaw’s lack of a prior criminal record, as well as her mental health history and her record of service to the community would make her an ideal candidate for a diversion program, but the nature of the alleged offense, and especially the allegations involving the discharge of a firearm into the vehicle, suggests such a disposition would be an uphill battle, even for an attorney as persuasive as Garland. 

Still, there is some indication that Garland might be working in that direction anyway. For one thing, all diversion programs are required to take into account the notification and response of the victim. For another, according to the Associated Press, Sullivan, the young attorney who accompanied Holdsclaw to the All-Purpose Hearing, said afterward that he’d “had positive conversations with Lacy” and that “they’re trying to resolve the case in the best way possible.”

For her part, Lacy would appear to be, at best, a reluctant witness. According to the police report, Lacy herself did not call the police during or after the incident, but remained on the phone with a friend throughout. Instead, an as-yet-unidentified alleged witness, who claimed that Holdsclaw had threatened both her and Lacy for reasons the caller said she did not understand, made the 911 call. Though the surrounding circumstances suggest that the caller might have been Lacy’s friend Tamara Kee – the only non-police witness other than Lacy identified in documents filed with the court by the District Attorney – that caller too seemed distressed by the idea that the incident would spill over to her workplace. Moreover, despite describing herself as an eyewitness to the incident, the 911 caller gave several inconsistent accounts of the whereabouts and nature of the alleged assault that will give an attorney as skilled as Garland plenty to work with should the matter wind up in a courtroom.

Lacy could not have been happy to have been put through such an involuntary and public “coming out” process, she is said to be represented by counsel, and her sole public statement on the incident has been the following message that appeared briefly on the Tulsa Shock website and remains on Lacy’s Twitter account: “I want to thank my family, friends, fans and the Shock family for their concern during this difficult time. … I have never felt more love from my fans in supporting me.”

Still, however supportive Tulsa and its fans might be, Oklahoma isn’t exactly the Bay Area, and while the incident as described in the police report would undoubtedly have been emotionally traumatic, Lacy’s behavior in the aftermath does not suggest any desire to remain in the spotlight in connection with this matter.  She may well want to see the matter put behind her, assuming an arrangement could be worked out that would ensure her ongoing safety and that of those close to her. She has reportedly told friends that she would like to see Holdsclaw “get the help she needs.”

It’s a safe bet that Garland and his colleagues are working arduously to provide just such assurances. Diversion programs typically involve a form of pretrial “probation,” and could include requirements of counseling, substance abuse and/or mental health treatment or anger management classes, as well as restitution (an estimated $2,100 in damage was done to Lacy’s Land Rover) and community service. But prosecution is tabled during the term of the diversion, which can be as long as one to three years, and if the program is successfully completed, the charges would be dismissed, leaving Holdsclaw with no record of criminal conviction. Indeed, defendants can even negotiate with the prosecutor to have their arrest records expunged after successfully completing a diversion program.

Of course, the charging decision in a criminal case is ultimately not up to Lacy, who can be subpoenaed to testify even if she personally would rather see the matter dropped, but to the Fulton County District Attorney. And, as noted, the gun charges – and to an extent the early publicity surrounding the case -- present obstacles to any disposition that the D.A. might fear would expose him to perceptions of favoritism or being “soft” on crimes of violence.

Even with Lacy’s support, Garland would have to persuade the D.A. that justice would be served by dropping the most serious charges – aggravated assault, aggravated assault with a deadly weapon, and possession of a firearm during the commission of a firearm, and perhaps even the more serious of the property charges, criminal damage to property in the first degree -- and accepting diversion on the second-degree charge of criminal damage to property. And Holdsclaw is already fortunate that because Georgia does not consider same-sex partners as spousal equivalents, the aggravated assault charges have not been enhanced as crimes of domestic violence, which would entail a minimum sentence of three years imprisonment to a maximum of 20 years on each count.

But the prosecution’s early maneuverings have also sent signals to those conversant with the pretrial dance: After initially seeking arrest warrants for three offenses – two felonies (aggravated assault with a weapon and criminal damage to property in the second degree) and a misdemeanor (reckless conduct) – by the time of Holdsclaw’s initial appearance, the prosecutor had filed the complaint charging five felonies and dropping the misdemeanor. The simultaneous filing of felony and misdemeanor charges is a sign to defenders in many jurisdictions that the prosecutor is willing to entertain an early plea to the misdemeanor, in return dropping the felonies. The upshift in the number and seriousness of the charges, and the withdrawal of the misdemeanor, would be seen as an indication that the D.A. is now willing to accept nothing less than a plea to a felony.

Still, that was before Ed Garland entered the case. And there’s no indication that the Fulton County D.A.’s Office is lacking for things to do. Georgia’s prisons are as overcrowded as those of any other state, trials are both risky and expensive in terms of the law enforcement resources consumed, and Garland’s presence isn’t likely to make things any easier. So a positive recommendation from Lacy would go a long way to providing the “solution” Garland says he is hoping for, and even if diversion is not in the cards, Garland may be able to resurrect the possibility of a plea to a lesser offense.

Plus, there’s another positive sign for Holdsclaw amid the tea leaves: As New York State’s chief judge Sol Wachtler so famously said, “A grand jury would indict a ham sandwich,” if a skilled prosecutor asked them to do so.  Today, a month to the day from the events in question, no indictment has been returned and no date for Holdsclaw’s return to court has yet been set.

It doesn’t take a law degree to read that one: Behind the scenes, Ed Garland is doing some talking, and someone in the office of the Fulton County D.A. is still willing to listen.