Appeals court won't reconsider former attorney's conviction

September 12, 2011|By MATTHEW UMSTEAD |

MARTINSBURG, W.Va. — The state Supreme Court of Appeals refused to rehear a former Martinsburg defense attorney’s appeal of his 2010 conviction on 11 misdemeanor counts of practicing law without a license.

The 5-0 decision on Steven M. Askin’s petition for rehearing his appeal was released Friday by the state’s high court.

Askin, 63, said Monday in a brief interview that he plans to appeal his conviction to the U.S. Supreme Court.

In a four-page memorandum opinion, the state Supreme Court on June 17 ruled 5-0 that the Berkeley County Prosecuting Attorney’s office presented “sufficient evidence” to support the verdict that was reached in a bench trial held by 23rd Judicial Circuit Judge Gina M. Groh in Berkeley County Circuit Court.

“This court finds no error in regard to the circuit court’s conviction of the petitioner and its imposition of fines in this matter,” the justices said in the opinion.

Askin was fined $1,100 — $100 for each misdemeanor conviction of practicing without a license in May 2010.

Groh had concluded that Askin’s legal advice, while in violation of the law in her opinion, did not appear to hurt any of the people that authorities said he helped.

Based on evidence and testimony presented in Askin’s two-day trial in November 2009, Groh ruled that she didn’t feel that the former attorney profited from his work and added that she believes Askin provided legal advice to people “out of compassion” for them.

Indicted in February 2009, Askin said that no individual ever had been criminally prosecuted on charges of practicing law without a license since the statute was enacted more than 80 years ago. Berkeley County Chief Prosecuting Attorney Christopher Quasebarth said Monday that he was not aware of any published opinions on the criminal statute of practicing without a license.

In his appeal, Askin argued that his indictment should have been dismissed because of prosecutorial misconduct, that the indictment violated the state constitution and that his right to due process was violated, among other claims.

Askin’s license was annulled by the state’s high court in 1998, two years after he voluntarily surrendered it. He entered a guilty plea in 1996 to criminal contempt for refusing to testify before a federal judge in a May 1994 drug trial of four defendants, including one of his clients. All four were convicted.

He served a six-month, 20-day prison sentence in Cumberland, Md.

Askin testified in November 2010 that he might have violated state court rules for unlawfully practicing law that are enforced administratively, not criminally, by the West Virginia State Bar and the state Supreme Court.

Witnesses testified in Askin’s trial that he didn’t charge a fee for helping them prepare legal motions and other documents, but a member of the West Virginia State Bar Committee for the Unlawful Practice of Law testified that monetary compensation is irrelevant when the panel considers whether legal services are being improperly provided.

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