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‘Recipe for disaster’: Las Vegas lawyers question wisdom of representing loved ones

Updated April 10, 2024 - 7:57 pm

The shooting that erupted at a Summerlin law office this week seemed to stem from deeply personal disputes between parties in a custody battle, with family members acting as lawyers in the case.

Attorney Joseph Houston II, 77, opened fired during a deposition on Monday, killing his son’s ex-wife, Ashley Prince, and her new husband, Dennis Prince.

Houston was representing his son in the custody case, and Dennis Prince, also an attorney, was representing his wife. Houston killed the two victims in front of his own wife as she was set to be deposed, then turned the gun on himself.

No ethics rules specifically prevented Houston from representing his son, or Dennis Prince from acting as co-counsel in his wife’s custody battle. Daniel Hooge, general counsel for the State Bar of Nevada, said attorneys can represent family members as long as they are “competent and diligent” in their representation.

“Anytime it gets really heated and you’re emotionally involved, or you’re a potential witness, you can’t competently represent them,” Hooge said.

And although there are ethics rules preventing prosecutors from being involved in cases where they know a party, attorneys in civil matters do not need to remain neutral, he said.

“You don’t have to be neutral because you’re supposed to be zealous for your client,” Hooge said.

‘Recipe for disaster’

John Curtas, a deputy Las Vegas city attorney and former president of the Clark County Bar Association, said he believes it’s better for clients to have a dispassionate attorney, as opposed to someone with an emotional stake in the case’s outcome.

“If that isn’t a recipe for disaster, I don’t know what is,” Curtas said.

Curtas said he had known Dennis Prince and Houston for decades, and he described the shooting as a “horrific tragedy.”

“Each attorney was representing a loved one in a bitter, nasty custody dispute, and they both should’ve known better,” Curtas said.

Las Vegas attorney John Mowbray and retired Las Vegas attorney Al Marquis agreed that problems are bound to occur in cases when lawyers have family members as clients.

“When you represent family members, they are not going to get objective advice,” Mowbray said. “You need to have someone who is a stable force. You need that neutrality.”

Marquis said both Houston and Dennis Prince “made the big mistake to represent members of their own family.”

Court records show that Dylan Houston, who is also a lawyer in Las Vegas, filed for divorce from Ashley in October 2021 after a four-year marriage. They were granted joint physical and legal custody of their two young children, but the custody arrangement remained in dispute.

Monday’s deposition, when a witness in a case is questioned under oath outside the presence of a judge, was scheduled for attorneys to question Katherine Houston, who is Joseph Houston’s wife and Dylan Houston’s mother.

Attorney Lisa Rasmussen previously told the Las Vegas Review-Journal that she was hired to represent Katherine Houston for the deposition in part because of the acrimonious nature of the case.

Ashley Prince wanted security to attend Monday’s deposition, but she canceled the request after learning that Dylan Houston would not be present, according to communications shared with the Review-Journal.

‘Error in judgment’

In a court document filed shortly after the shooting, attorney Michele LoBello, who represented Ashley Prince, wrote that Dylan Houston “knew or must have known of the intentions of his father prior to the commission of these heinous acts.”

Dylan Houston denied the allegations in his own court filing, writing that the “suggestion that this was a ‘planned attack’ with the Plaintiff is insulting and quite speculative.”

Attorney Marshal Willick, the former president of the American Academy of Matrimonial Lawyers’ Nevada chapter, said Family Court contains some of the most emotionally charged cases.

“There’s an old saying: Criminal lawyers get to see bad people at their best behavior; family law attorneys get to see good people at their worst behavior,” Willick said.

Willick said he has represented family members before, but he agreed that attorneys shouldn’t be involved in cases unless they can maintain an emotional distance.

“This was an error in judgment to obviously allow himself to be in a position where (Joseph Houston) was so deeply affected he went off the deep end,” Willick said. “I presume that’s what happened.”

If you’re thinking about suicide, or are worried about a friend or loved one, help is available 24/7 by calling or texting the Lifeline network at 988. Live chat is available at 988lifeline.org.

Contact Katelyn Newberg at knewberg@reviewjournal.com or 702-383-0240. Staff writers Brett Clarkson and Jeff Burbank contributed to this report.

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