(WJI) -- The estates of a man and a woman who hung themselves in the Wood County Jail filed lawsuits last week against the county, alleging officials knew the two were at risk of attempting suicide but did nothing to prevent it.
The suicides occurred after the victims were unrepresented by legal counsel during their separate preliminary hearings, held about eight months apart.
Trequelle Vann-Marcouex, 18, hung himself Aug. 15, the night after he was forced to represent himself at a preliminary hearing because there was no defense lawyer available to take the case. Wood County Circuit Judge Todd P. Wolf decided not to wait for the State Public Defender's Office (SPD) to assign a lawyer and did not appoint a lawyer at county expense, which would have been proper procedure.
Vann-Marcouex died Aug. 18.
Casey Teskoski, 28, hung herself Dec. 22, 2017, the day after Wood County Circuit Judge Gregory J. Potter held a preliminary hearing in her case. She also was not represented by a lawyer, according to online court records.
She died Dec. 29, according to the suit.
Potter is the chief judge of the state court system's District VI, which includes Adams, Clark, Columbia, Dodge, Green Lake, Juneau, Marquette, Portage, Sauk, Waushara, and Wood Counties.
Prior to the deaths of Vann-Marcouex and Teskoski, the suits say, "Wood County experienced multiple suicide attempts, at least some of which were successful."
"In response to these suicide acts, Wood County made no changes to policies designed to prevent future suicides, despite the knowledge that its policies were inadequate," the suits say.
The suits allege that Wood County’s "knowing failure" to have policies and procedures in place to identify and monitor suicide risks violated the constitutional rights of Vann-Marcouex and Teskoski.
Both estates are represented by the law firm of Gingras Cates &Wachs, of Madison.
The lack of legal representation for defendants in criminal cases who cannot afford lawyers is a constitutional crisis in the state. The SPD appoints private bar attorneys to handle cases when it cannot do so because of excessive caseloads or potential conflicts of interest. The low pay the office can offer – $40 an hour, the lowest rate in the nation and not enough to cover the average lawyer's overhead costs – means more and more lawyers are turning down cases. The State Supreme Court last year refused a request to increase the rate.
Judges are supposed to appoint lawyers at county expense at $70 per hour if no other lawyer is available, according to the State Supreme Court.
The Sixth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution guarantees defendants in criminal cases the right to effective counsel. The State Supreme Court has specifically ruled that defendants are entitled to counsel at preliminary hearings. The U.S. Supreme Court also has ruled that defendants are entitled to counsel at their prelims.
There hearings are held to determine whether there is enough evidence to bind a defendant over for trial.
In Wood County, though, holding preliminary hearings without legal representation for indigent defendants was a fairly standard practice and SPD lawyers were aware of it, according to a court transcript. An assistant state public defender told the judge there could be a second preliminary hearing after a lawyer was found for the defendant.