When personal injury lawyer Glen Lerner missed the first day of his client’s murder trial last week, the self-described “Heavy Hitter” opened himself to a legal thumping that could include disbarment or even jail time, legal experts said.
Lerner was to begin defending 42-year-old Mario Lino, who has been in the county jail for almost eight months on charges that he killed a man he suspected of having an affair with his wife.
Lerner said he was on a “sabbatical” in Pennsylvania and couldn’t attend the hearing. He left a message on a county prosecutor’s voice mail several days before the trial saying he wouldn’t be returning to Las Vegas to defend his client, and “if the judge wants to sanction me, she can sanction me.”
“It’s an outrageous thing to do,” said Martin Geer, a professor at the Boyd School of Law at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas.
Geer, who was a criminal defense attorney for 15 years in Detroit and Washington, D.C., said he has never heard of an attorney not showing up on the first day of a murder trial.
Geer said the District Court judge presiding over the case, Michelle Leavitt, could hold Lerner in civil or criminal contempt.
That means Leavitt could order Lerner to pay the county costs associated with the delay in the trial. If she makes a complaint and it’s upheld by the State Bar, he could even have his license to practice law taken away.
But Leavitt also could hold Lerner in criminal contempt and require him to spend upwards of 25 days behind bars as a way of punishing him, Geer said.
“A lot of judges would have issued a warrant for his arrest immediately. I’ve seen it happen when someone is late,” Geer said.
Leavitt said previously that she would refer Lerner’s behavior to the State Bar of Nevada and would issue an order for Lerner to appear before her and explain why he didn’t appear in court.
Leavitt said she wanted to hear Lerner’s side of the story.
David Clark, deputy counsel for the State Bar, wouldn’t speculate on possible sanctions Lerner could face.
Clark said the State Bar has yet to receive a complaint from Leavitt against Lerner.
The Bar could initiate a complaint against Lerner, Clark said, but hasn’t done so. He said the Bar “may want to see what the judge wants to do” before filing a complaint against Lerner.
Lerner wouldn’t comment on Friday.
His attorney, Dominic Gentile, said he wasn’t aware of any order asking Lerner to appear before Leavitt to explain himself.
Gentile said any further explanation about Lerner’s handling of the Lino case will come out in court. But Gentile said Lerner doesn’t appear to be the trial attorney of record in Lino’s case.
Prosecutors have said that Lerner told them he was the lead attorney in the case, and Lerner appeared at Lino’s preliminary hearing.
Local attorneys agreed with Geer that Lerner’s behavior was unheard of.
Robert Langford, a criminal defense attorney who also was a county prosecutor, said he doubts the State Bar will look favorably on Lerner.
But he said Lerner isn’t the type of attorney who would leave a client to fend for himself.
“I know he typically cares about his clients. I can’t imagine he did this because he didn’t care,” Langford said.
Todd Leventhal, a partner at Flangas Law Offices who practices criminal, civil and family law, said clients put all their trust in their lawyers and rely on them to act professionally.
Lawyers have a sworn duty to gather evidence, hire expert witnesses and private investigators and spend as much time as possible with their client.
“If I’m in a murder trial, I would see my client daily to talk to him. It’s not just the first day (of a trial). It goes beyond that,” Leventhal said.
During Tuesday’s hearing, Lino, who faces a life sentence, said he had trouble contacting Lerner. Lino said he even had family members try to contact Lerner but they too had no luck.
Lerner has said he couldn’t attend the trial because he was out of state. Lerner said he did contact chief deputy district attorney Roy Nelson to try and work out a deal and get the case continued.
But Leventhal said that excuse didn’t hold much weight with him.
“If I couldn’t get a case continued, I’d be on a plane back” to Las Vegas, he said.
Contact reporter David Kihara at dkihara @reviewjournal.com or (702) 380-1039.