Murder appeal conflict for attorney who aided Branson during election

An outside prosecutor may be needed in the appeal of a decade-old murder conviction, because the defense attorney helped lead the election campaign of incoming Douglas County Dist. Atty. Charles Branson.

David Brown, lawyer for convicted murderer James Ludlow, said his involvement with Branson’s campaign created an appearance of conflict in the case. Last week he asked Douglas County District Court Judge Jack Murphy to order prosecutors to turn the case over to outside attorneys.

Branson on Monday said such conflicts would be rare but inevitable as he made the transition from defense to prosecution work.

“That’s not going to happen very often,” Branson said. “I think that’s fairly routine that you have conflicts like that when you start.”

Brown, an adviser during Branson’s campaign and transition, said his firm did so little work on criminal cases that such conflicts shouldn’t be an ongoing issue.

“After he takes office, I’m not sure my role as a political adviser to him to get him elected creates the kind of conflict” that requires case withdrawals, Brown said.

Ludlow has been in prison the past decade for the Nov. 22, 1992, shooting death of Tracy Robbins at Robbins’ home south of Lawrence. The Kansas Supreme Court upheld the conviction in 1994.

But only recently did Ludlow’s family put together enough money to hire Brown, a private attorney, to argue that Ludlow had ineffective court-appointed attorneys during the trial and on appeal.

The case exemplifies the ethical trickiness for attorneys moving from defense work to prosecution, a problem so common that the Kansas County & District Attorneys Assn. warns new members about it.

“In the months following being sworn in, some of you may have criminal cases involving a former client set for proceedings,” Steve Kearney, the association’s director, said in a Nov. 19 letter to newly elected prosecutors. “In most instances the attorney general’s office handles such conflicts.”

The transition can be complicated, as in the case of Brown and Ludlow, by the political nature of the district attorney’s office.

In addition to Brown, more than a dozen defense attorneys in Lawrence publicly supported Branson in his race against incumbent Christine Kenney.

Merits of the case

Defense attorney John Frydman, an active Branson campaign supporter, often criticized Kenney for what he said was her inflexible handling of plea bargaining in drug cases. He said he hoped to see Branson take a different approach to those cases across the board, but he said he didn’t expect special treatment personally.

“The prior administration, we just butted heads,” he said. “I am hopeful that he will be more willing to come my way because it’s the right thing to do, because it’s just and equitable. The office is all about negotiating.”

Defense attorney Jim George lent his name to a list of Branson supporters and put one of Branson’s campaign signs in his yard. But he said he didn’t expect any back-scratching in return once Branson took office Jan. 10.

“I certainly don’t expect the DA to bend the law for my clients because I supported him,” said George, who is in the running to become Douglas County’s next judge. “I think Charlie and I are at arm’s length.”

Branson agreed.

“Just because a defense attorney supported my campaign, or didn’t support my campaign, doesn’t make any difference,” he said. “We’ll decide on the merits of the case and only on the merits of the case.”