Trial of suspect facing rape, kidnapping charges stalls

BEAUFORT -- The trial of a 36-year-old St. Helena Island man facing rape, carjacking, armed robbery and kidnapping charges came to a standstill Wednesday afternoon after his court-appointed attorney asked to be relieved of his duties, then refused to answer any questions without an attorney of his own present.

Though the jury heard testimony from eight witnesses and saw 20 pieces of evidence entered into the record Wednesday, much of the action in the second day of the trial of Alphonso Howard took place while the jury was out of Courtroom One at the Beaufort County Courthouse.

At about 3 p.m., Jim Brown, Howard's attorney, Deputy Solicitor Angela McCall-Tanner and Judge Carmen Mullen began debating the admissibility of testimony given in a pre-trial hearing by Dr. Michael Smith, a psychiatrist at the Medical University of South Carolina in Charleston.

Smith performed a competency evaluation on Howard's co-defendant, Lorenzo Hicks, in February 2008. Smith said Hicks was competent to stand trial and was capable of distinguishing between right and wrong on May 26, 2006, when Hicks and Howard allegedly abducted a Tennessee couple from a parking lot in downtown Beaufort, robbed them of $900 in cash and sexually assaulted the woman near the football stadium at Beaufort High School.

Hicks is expected to testify against Howard as part of a plea bargain he made with prosecutors Monday.

When Mullen ruled that Smith couldn't provide any new information on Hicks' mental state beyond his year-old forensic report and excused Smith from the courtroom, Brown made a motion requesting funding to allow him to hire a psychiatrist to perform a new competency evaluation on Hicks. Mullen denied that motion, causing Brown to attempt to bow out as Howard's attorney.

"Your honor, I make a motion to withdraw as counsel," Brown said. "I cannot go forward. I cannot go forward."

Mullen denied his motion and attempted to proceed with the trial.

"I do not think you consulted with your client when you made that motion, and of course, you cannot make that motion unilaterally," she said. "You can't just ask me to relieve you because I ruled adversely on one issue. Whenever a motion is made, someone is going to prevail and someone is going to lose. You've worked very hard on this case and this would be an injustice, not only to you, but most importantly, your client. You took an oath."

Brown claimed that if he were to continue with Howard's defense, he would be leaving himself open to malpractice, and even hired an attorney of his own, Andy Savage of Charleston, by telephone from the courtroom.

For the brief remainder of the day, Brown refused to take any formal action as Howard's lawyer, forcing Mullen to adjourn for the day pending an 8:30 a.m. conference today with Mullen, Savage and Brown.