Colon murder case sent back to District Court for preliminary exam
CENTREVILLE — The case of the man accused of murdering Chelsea Wallen in Colon in October will be going back to St. Joseph County 3B District Court in the near future.
St. Joseph County Circuit Court Judge Paul Stutesman remanded the case of Michael Lafler Thursday to the lower court for a preliminary examination hearing, due to earlier issues in the case surrounding Lafler’s representation.
Lafler, 35, is accused of murdering the 33-year-old Wallen on Oct. 15 in Colon. According to police, Wallen died of asphyxiation/strangulation. Lafler was arraigned and held on $1 million bond.
Stutesman noted in his decision to send the case back that Lafler’s previous representation, former St. Joseph County Prosecutor John McDonough, was not officially appointed to the county’s public defender contract when the case was handed off to him by public defender Luke Nofsinger prior to the Nov. 2 pre-exam conference, which he said made Lafler’s family believe McDonough was a public defender.
“We are in agreement as to the facts. Mr. Nofsinger was originally appointed by the court as a public defender, and then entered into some agreement with Mr. McDonough to take over the case for him. In the end, Mr. McDonough was never approved by the county to be on the defense contract,” Stutesman said. “I’m not going to start off a case with a shadow on the case and appealable issues that can be avoided. I’m just remanding it for a preliminary exam with retained counsel. Right, wrong, or otherwise, where it was in the process with getting him appointed to the contract or not, I’m not going to get into that whole thing, I’m just going to say he never got appointed to the public defense contract, and therefore the family believed he was a public defender.”
A motion to remand the case back to District Court was filed May 3 by Lafler’s attorney, Randall S. Levine of Kalamazoo’s Levine & Levine law firm. In the brief supporting the motion, Levine wrote his client had “ineffective assistance” from McDonough, stating his client was advised to waive his right to a preliminary examination without being educated as to the pros and cons of holding the hearing or the significance and purpose of said hearing.
In addition, the motion cited other instances of “misconduct” by Lafler’s previous counsel, including failing to appear for scheduled meetings with Lafler’s family on two separate occasions without contacting the family, and failed to appear at two of Lafler’s court appearances “without adequate explanation.”
One of those hearings McDonough failed to appear in was in February, in which he was reportedly “double booked” for a hearing in Cass County at the same time. However, according to Levine’s brief, a county employee contacted staff in Cass County and learned McDonough was not present in court at the time either.
“The failures and deficiencies of prior counsel are significant and problematic for not only Mr. Lafler, but also for this Court and the family of Ms. Wallen,” Levine wrote in his brief.
In response to the motion on June 15, St. Joseph County Prosecutor David Marvin wrote the motion should be denied because there was no statement or request for relief for Lafler in it. Marvin wrote Lafler was informed by District Court Judge Jeffrey Middleton at the Dec. 7 pre-exam conference about the nature and purpose of the preliminary examination, where Lafler then waived his right to a preliminary exam.
Marvin also noted, on the argument of ineffective counsel, that McDonough should have a chance to respond to the accusations, and detailed the history of the case and how Lafler ended up with McDonough as his original counsel. He also wrote that a determination of ineffective counsel at the pre-trial stage falls outside the boundaries of previous court cases that determined the issue.
“Defense counsel has not shown, supported by facts and evidence rather than conjecture, that prior counsel’s performance was so deficient that counsel was not functioning as the counsel guaranteed by the Sixth Amendment,” Marvin wrote. “Aside from the lack of evidence to demonstrate a deficiency in representation Defense counsel has also failed to allege or address with any degree of certainty how the Defendant’s case was prejudiced in any way by this alleged ineffective assistance of counsel.”
Marvin said in an interview after the hearing the case is expected to be back in District Court possibly within the next two weeks.
Other motions were considered during Thursday’s hearing, including both sides agreeing to the defense getting a clone of Lafler’s phone for a forensic analysis and both sides agreeing to allow DNA testing on some evidence.
Robert Tomlinson can be reached at 279-7488 ext. 22 or email@example.com.