Murder suspect shares lawyer with police witness

Published 10:06 pm Sunday, August 31, 2008

COURTLAND—For now, at least, accused murderer Darris Lamont Thomas has the same lawyer as one of the witnesses likely to be called to testify against him.

A judge this week declined to immediately honor a request from Southampton County Commonwealth’s Attorney to remove attorney Eric Korslund from the case for a conflict of interest.

Korslund, an attorney with the Norfolk firm Zoby & Broccoletti, P.C., represents both Thomas and former Franklin police detective Edwin J. Delgado, who collected some evidence in the Thomas case and is accused of perjury in an unrelated one.

Thomas, of South Street in Franklin, faces trial in November on charges of murder in the first degree, shooting in a public place, possession of a gun within 10 years of being declared a nonviolent felon and use of a firearm in the commission of a felony.

He was arrested Aug. 7, 2007, for the shooting death the previous day of 21-year-old Harley Bethea, who was walking home from the Hi-Lot Market on South Street when he was struck in the chest by a bullet fired from a large-caliber handgun. He died at the corner of Mariner and Delk streets, about 100 feet from his front door.

Police said at the time they did not believe Bethea had been the target of the shooting. Rather, they said, he seemed to have walked into the line of fire, unaware of the gunshots because he was listening to music on his headphones at the time.

Delgado assisted with the police investigation into the shooting, taking a statement from a witness and collecting some evidence at the scene.

A hearing in Southampton Circuit Court on Tuesday had a Twilight Zone quality about it, as the prosecutor and defense attorney seemed to switch roles in regards to the traditional treatment of criminal case witnesses.

“Our position is that his credibility is not at issue in the Darris Thomas case,” Korslund told Judge Westbrook J. Parker, arguing against the motion that would have had him withdrawn as Thomas’ attorney.

The defense attorney also produced a copy of a waiver that Thomas signed, acknowledging that he would be sharing an attorney with a detective whose work helped land him in jail on the murder charge.

Delgado’s perjury charge springs from a November incident related to a speeding/reckless driving ticket he wrote.

Korslund suggested that he did not see a reason that it would be necessary to try to impeach Delgado’s character as a prosecution witness in his client’s murder trial.

Completing the role reversal, Cooke argued to the judge, ostensibly on the defendant’s behalf: “I’m no particular fan of Darris Thomas, but he wants his lawyers to impeach Officer Delgado, to aggressively impeach and attack him.”

For his own part, Thomas appeared confused on the stand, offering contradictory explanations of his desires regarding his defense.

Asked about the waiver he had signed releasing his attorney to work on both cases, he told Cooke, “I don’t have no problem with it.”

Then Cooke asked him if he wanted his lawyer “to impeach Officer Delgado, if he testifies,” and Thomas replied, “Yes.”

Judge Parker interrupted and asked, “Do you know what ‘impeach’ means.” Thomas replied, “No.”

When Cooke rephrased his question and asked whether Thomas wanted his lawyers “to attack Officer Delgado when he testifies,” the defendant replied, “Yes, sir.”

Korslund argued that there might not even be a problem, since Delgado’s trial is set for Sept. 11, more than two months earlier than the Thomas case.

“By the time Mr. Thomas goes to trial, Mr. Delgado may be a former client,” he said. “I think it’s safe to say Mr. Delgado doesn’t take it personally when someone cross-examines him.”

Worried about the potential for a mistrial stemming from the issue, Cooke said, “I don’t want to try this case twice, and I don’t think this court does, either.”

Judge Parker said he would decide on the issue by the end of the week. Cooke said Friday afternoon that he had not yet been issued a ruling.