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Language barrier brings Askin trial to a halt

Proceedings against former Martinsburg attorney expected to resume Thursday

Proceedings against former Martinsburg attorney expected to resume Thursday

November 18, 2009|By MATTHEW UMSTEAD

MARTINSBURG, W.Va. -- A bench trial for a well-known former Martinsburg defense attorney accused of practicing law without a license came to a screeching halt Wednesday after one of the state's witnesses apparently did not understand enough English to be sworn in to testify.

The trial for Steven M. Askin is expected to resume at 9 a.m. today, but it is unclear whether an interpreter for Toan Huynh of Hagerstown will be available. Huynh is Vietnamese.

Askin, 61, was indicted by a Berkeley County grand jury in February 2009 on 11 misdemeanor counts of practice without a law license. His license was annulled in 1998 by the West Virginia Supreme Court of Appeals and a petition for reinstatement of his license was denied in 2006, according to records presented in court Wednesday by Chief Deputy Prosecuting Attorney Christopher Quasebarth.

If convicted, Askin could be fined as much as $1,000 on each count, according to the West Virginia Code.

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Askin, who has been representing himself in the case, told 23rd Judicial Circuit Judge Gina M. Groh at the end of Wednesday's proceedings that he intended to testify in his own defense today with the help of another attorney who would question him on the witness stand.

Groh delayed making a ruling, saying she wasn't going to make a decision "from the hip." Yet, the judge also said she didn't know of any legal basis to deny Askin's trial maneuver, which Quasebarth described as "exceedingly odd."

Excluding Huynh, Quasebarth called nine witnesses to testify Wednesday and was expected to have an expert who traveled from Beckley, W.Va., give testimony today.

Askin's license to practice law in West Virginia was annulled after he served a six-month, 20-day sentence in Cumberland, Md. He reported there in April 1996 after pleading guilty to criminal contempt for refusing to testify before a federal judge in a May 1994 drug trial of four defendants, including one of his own clients. All four were convicted.

Misty G. Curtis of Bunker Hill, W.Va., testified Wednesday that she prepared a significant number of legal documents for Askin while she was enrolled in the paralegal studies program at Blue Ridge Community and Technical College.

Curtis said she began typing legal motions for criminal cases and other papers for Askin in May or June of 2008 after meeting the former attorney through a relative.

Her unpaid work for Askin, who was teaching at Mountain State University's Martinsburg campus at the time, was helping her meet school internship requirements and Askin was her "internship supervisor," she said.

Askin had her prepare legal papers from his handwritten notes on yellow legal pad paper. Curtis said she often delivered the final drafts to people that had met with Askin.

Curtis said she met with Askin several times about various cases, including a personal legal matter, at restaurants and at Mountain State.

The internship came to an end when West Virginia State Police Sgt. D.E. Boober "showed up at her doorstep" to investigate last year, Curtis said.

Curtis said she never filed for the internship credit she was eligible to receive because of the pending police investigation.

"I didn't think it would be fair to the other students," Curtis said.

Boober on Wednesday testified that he was contacted in September 2008 by Berkeley County Prosecuting Attorney Pamela Jean Games-Neely's office to investigate Askin's activities and discovered that one person who met with Askin was best friends with Askin's son.

Curtis and six other people who testified Wednesday said Askin did not charge them a legal fee to discuss their legal options. They also said they either already knew Askin was not a lawyer or indicated that Askin told them he wasn't able to represent them.

Delores F. Hose of Martinsburg testified that she was introduced to Askin through a friend and decided to "pick (Askin's) brain a little bit" for help with some legal questions that arose from having a tenant that owed her a lot of money.

"He made it very clear to me that he was not an attorney," Hose said.

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