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Public defender faces accusations of intimidation

By Nelson Daranciang

LAST UPDATED: 1:57 a.m. HST, Jul 9, 2011

Federal Public Defender Peter C. Wolff Jr. took the witness stand Friday to defend himself against allegations that he pressured a former client into pleading guilty.

The client, former Kauai physician Harold C. Spear III, pleaded guilty in two federal cases in 2009 to unlawfully prescribing powerful pain medication to people here and on the mainland based solely on telephone conversations with them. In one of the cases, he pleaded guilty to prescribing drugs to an undercover officer in Alabama without ever meeting the officer.

He wants to withdraw his guilty pleas and go to trial to challenge the charges.

Spear also pleaded guilty in state court last year for pre-signing blank prescription forms. He has yet to be sentenced in any of the cases.

Wolff represented Spear on only the federal charges. He became Spear's lawyer in May 2008 after Spear said he could no longer afford to pay his then-private lawyer. Spear said Michael J. Green estimated it was going to cost him $350,000 to go to trial and an additional $25,000 for sentencing if he was found guilty.

In conversations with Wolff leading up to his guilty pleas on July 10, 2009, Spear said whenever he vacillated between wanting to go to trial and pursuing a plea deal with the government, Wolff became annoyed, yelled at him and used profanity.

"I felt intimidated by the whole situation. There was nobody behind me," Spear said.

Wolff said he recommended Spear pursue a plea deal rather than go to trial. But he said he doesn't remember ever having a heated conversation with Spear or yelling. He said on the day Spear pleaded guilty, he was ready to tell the judge his client was not going through with the change of plea even though he had an agreement with the government.

Wolff has been a federal and state public defender in his more than 30 years as a lawyer in Hawaii. He said it is not unusual for defendants to be reluctant to plead guilty even though they have a plea deal.

Because Spear kept going back and forth about going to trial, Wolff said he took the unusual step of requiring Spear to put in writing that he wanted a plea deal.

He said he told Spear, "I'm not going to discuss this with you ever again until you put it in writing because we're just wasting out time, spinning our wheels."

Spear said he put in writing that he was guilty and wanted a plea deal in May 2009 because he was afraid of going into custody at the federal detention center in Honolulu.

Then-U.S. Magistrate Judge Leslie E. Kobayashi had just revoked his bail for allegedly using the license number of his father, who is also a physician, to refill a patient's prescription. Spear is no longer licensed to practice medicine in Hawaii.

Spear also claims he gave sufficient indication to Kobayashi at the change-of-plea hearing that he did not want to plead guilty, that Wolff failed to properly investigate his case, that his judgment was impaired because his lithium dosage for his bipolar condition was too low and that Wolff misinformed him on the possible sentence he was facing.

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