EATONTON, Ga. — Franklin J. Hogue, who has represented several defendants in death penalty cases, announced Friday morning that he is the new lead defense attorney for Donnie Rowe, a state inmate accused in the killings of two state corrections officers more than two years ago in Putnam County.
Rowe and co-defendant Ricky Dubose are accused in the June 13, 2017, shooting deaths of Sgt. Curtis Billue and Sgt. Christopher Monica onboard a Georgia Department of Corrections transport bus.
Rowe and Dubose, already state inmates at the time of the killings of the officers, subsequently escaped from the bus and became fugitives in a nationwide manhunt.
Hogue, a well-known criminal defense lawyer from Macon who also teaches about the death penalty, told Ocmulgee Judicial Circuit Superior Court Judge Brenda H. Trammell that he had agreed by request to come onto the case as lead counsel.
“All right, you are going to be lead counsel on this case,” Trammell asked.
Hogue replied, “Yes.”
The judge said she was trying to figure out exactly what his status was — whether he was appointed or retained — to represent Rowe in his upcoming death penalty trial set for this fall.
In regard to the Unified Appeal Rule, Trammell said she believed she needed to know about his status, for the record.
Hogue said he could not tell her what she wanted to know regarding status.
“So, are you a volunteer pro-bono,” Trammell asked Hogue.
Hogue responded saying he wasn’t sure that any of his financial arrangements with the defendant concerned the court.
“Well, I think it is a concern Mr. Hogue,” Trammell said. “I’ve got to know for the purposes of this case what your status is.”
The judge also said the difficulty she had with what Hogue had told her was the posture and the positions that placed the other two defense attorneys representing Rowe.
Trammell was referring to Adam Levine and Erin Wallace. Levine has served as Rowe’s lead defense attorney. Both of those attorneys have been involved with the case for more than a year with the Georgia Capital Defenders Office.
“Well, as far as the unified appeal, judge and I haven’t looked at it because I didn’t anticipate these questions. I think for the court’s purposes as far as the unified appeal to question my competence — all you would need to know is that I have not been appointed,” Hogue said. “And then you can go through the questions concerning my experience in death penalty cases.”
Hogue contended that other than that, he didn’t believe his financial arrangements were not of any concern to the court.
“Well, let me ask you this, were you retained by Mr. Rowe,” Trammell asked the prominent criminal defense attorney.
Hogue told the judge he didn’t believe he was required to answer the question.
“That’s a private matter,” Hogue said.
Trammell continued questioning the new defense attorney.
“So, well, that’s the question — did he retain you; did he appoint you; did he ask you to be here, because you don’t have the right, Mr. Hogue, to just come into a case without some sort of (understanding) on the part of the defendant. And it’s the court’s obligation to determine what that is.”
Hogue said he wasn’t there against his client’s wishes.
Ocmulgee Judicial Circuit District Attorney Stephen A. Bradley then stood up and spoke about the newest defense attorney.
“First of all, I know Mr. Hogue to be a very competent, an excellent experienced attorney, and I’m sure he would be of great benefit to the defense counsel,” Bradley said. “I do agree with the court 100 percent that Mr. Rowe probably needs to be on the record saying this is the lawyer I want.”
Bradley said the most important thing to him was that Hogue is not employed by or affiliated with the Capital Defenders Office, professionally, in any capacity other than assisting them in the case.
“He didn’t indicate that he was assisting in this case,” Trammell said. “He indicated that he was going to be lead counsel in the case, is that correct?”
Hogue agreed such was correct.
“It is incumbent upon this court to make a determination as to the status,” Trammell said.
Hogue said he believed it was the burden of the court to decide what required him to answer questions about his relationship with his client.
Hogue said he was on the case and he believed that’s all he was required by law to tell the court.
“I’ve announced this morning that I’m lead counsel and I think that’s the end of it,” Hogue said.
Trammell quickly responded that she didn’t agree.
“I don’t think it’s the end of the matter,” Trammell said.
The judge cited a 1992 case related to the issue.
Hogue said he wasn’t sure why it should be a question or a concern to the court.
“I’m a lawyer; I’m here on a case, and I’ve tendered that I’m experienced,” Hogue said. “Beyond that, I’m ready to play my role.”
The judge then asked him a series of questions related to his experience and training.
He noted that he routinely teaches at death penalty colleges.
Trammell reminded Hogue that Rowe’s trial is scheduled to begin Monday, Oct. 28.
“That’s what I heard,” Hogue said.
The judge asked Hogue if it was his testimony that he could be prepared for trial at that time.
“Well, yes and no,” Hogue replied. “If the court requires us to start the trial then, I will be here to do my best.”
He said that he could be present when the court requires him to be, but “no, we will not be ready for trial on Oct. 28.”
Trammell then went back to the issue of Hogue’s status in the case, and asked Hogue if he wanted to put Rowe under oath to respond to his retention of him.
“No, I don’t think he’s required to answer those questions,” Hogue said. “That’s private.”
He contends that’s a matter between himself and his client.
“Except for the fact that the court’s got to know if someone, Mr. Hogue, that Mr. Rowe is agreeing to your being lead counsel on this case,” Trammell said. “And I haven’t heard that, yet.”
Hogue said he wasn’t aware that a defendant had to tell the court that he agrees.
He said in appointed cases that clients were told on a regular basis that they didn’t have a choice.
“These are the lawyers you get,” Hogue said.
Until such time as the court makes a decision regarding the status issue, Trammell ruled that Levine would continue as lead counsel on the case.
“So, the ruling is that I may not come into this case as lead counsel,” Hogue asked the judge. “I am forbidden from being lead counsel.”
Trammell said that wasn’t what she said.
“I said until I am able to do some research on whether or not you can take this position or you provide the court with some authority on whether or not you can take that position, then Mr. Levine is going to have to continue as lead counsel,” Trammell said.