The defense attorney for a La Crosse man in prison for the overdose death of his girlfriend recently testified that he didn’t hire an investigator, relying instead on his client.
Mitchell Perner, 24, is serving a 12-year sentence and has requested a new trial on the grounds he had inadequate representation.
“My client was very knowledgeable (on drug matters),” Russell Hanson said when asked why he didn’t hire an investigator. “I thought he knew more than one or two of the state’s witnesses. His depth of knowledge astounded me.”
Twenty-year-old Shelby Perkins, a 2008 Black River Falls High School graduate, died in 2010 after taking heroin that prosecutors said Perner bought from Cory Koopman and shared with her.
A jury convicted Perner last year of first-degree reckless homicide, and he was sentenced to 12 years in prison and another eight on extended supervision. Koopman, who pleaded guilty to the same charge, was sentenced to eight years in prison.
During his trial, Perner said it was Perkins who bought the heroin, but Koopman testified otherwise.
Testifying by phone May 4 in La Crosse County Circuit Court, Hanson said his defense was based on the premise that Perner wasn’t involved in the drug deal. Yet under questioning from Perner’s new attorney, Suzanne Edwards, Hanson said he never attempted to establish that Koopman knew Perkins, despite Koopman telling police he did not.
“That, I thought, was obvious, that they’d been together in the apartment,” Hanson said. “I didn’t think he’d be testifying to that.”
Edwards argued in court documents that a defense attorney should have sought out witnesses to verify that Koopman knew Perkins in order to discredit his testimony.
Hanson also said he assumed the jury would know Koopman was testifying under a grant of immunity.
“I thought it was pretty obvious under the circumstances under which he was testifying,” Hanson said. “He was there in a jail uniform.”
Hanson, who serves as a family court commissioner in Vernon County and maintains a light criminal case load, said that in 47 years of practicing law he’d represented about nine clients in homicide trials. All were found guilty, though he said several received less than the maximum sentence.
“I consider that an acquittal,” Hanson said. “I’ve never had an actual acquittal.”
Edwards also has challenged the conviction in a written brief that argues the law distinguishes between drug dealers and users: Two people sharing drugs does not constitute the “delivery” required for a reckless homicide conviction. She contends Perner’s only crime was possession of heroin.
Both he and Koopman were charged under the state’s Len Bias law, which allows drug suppliers to be prosecuted for fatal overdoses.
Attorneys will argue those legal points in written briefs to be filed in the coming months. Judge Elliott Levine said he expects to issue a ruling by early August.