The trial of a man accused of first-degree murder for killing and robbing another man with whom he was in a romantic relationship was postponed Wednesday after a judge found the man’s lawyer to be “grossly incompetent” and removed her from the case.
Dane County Circuit Judge Ellen Berz removed Sarah Clemment as lawyer for Dennis Hassel, who was scheduled to go to trial starting Oct. 10, after ruling that Clemment didn’t understand basic legal terms and concepts that were discussed during a pretrial motion hearing on Wednesday.
Hassel, 56, is awaiting a trial for the April 15, 2015, strangulation death of 76-year-old Larry Ewing at Ewing’s Sheboygan Avenue apartment. Police believe that Hassel, who had recently been released from prison, killed Ewing and took some of his belongings to sell for cash at a shop on Williamson Street. Hassel’s movements were tracked by a GPS bracelet that he was wearing.
Wednesday’s hearing was to set ground rules for the trial, such as how certain types of evidence and testimony are to be handled and which defenses would be allowed during the trial.
Berz began to question Clemment about her responses to motions made by prosecutors after suspecting that Clemment didn’t understand what was meant by certain legal terms and concepts. To some of Berz’s questions, Clemment simply answered, “I don’t know,” and when asked to cite legal authority on another, Berz noted that Clemment was using her smartphone to find an answer.
Quizzed about other concepts, such as presenting an alibi defense, the admissibility of statements made by the victim to other witnesses, the rules for exclusion of witnesses, the character of the defendant and prior criminal records of witnesses, Berz said that Clemment gave incorrect answers.
“I’m trying to find out if you’re the least bit competent to represent anyone at any kind of trial,” Berz told Clemment at one point. When Clemment answered at another point that a legal concept was “as simple as apple pie” without specifically answering Berz’s question about it, Berz remarked that that was “the most ludicrous thing I’ve ever heard come from the mouth of a defense attorney.”
Berz found Clemment to be in violation of several state Supreme Court rules, including a lack of legal competence, failing to diligently represent her client and failing to communicate with him.
“Audacious,” Berz said. “It is audacious that you would handle any criminal case.”
Hassel told Berz that he hired Clemment using money provided by his sister, who had cashed in a retirement fund. According to the website for her solo law practice, Clemment is primarily an immigration attorney. She received her law degree from the University of Iowa in 2000, according to the State Bar of Wisconsin. She was publicly reprimanded in 201 1 for her handling of an immigration case.
The state Public Defender’s Office will assign a new lawyer to Hassel. Clemment did not respond later to a phone message seeking comment.
Clemment complained at the outset of the hearing that she had no opportunity to meet with Hassel because he is at the Green Bay Correctional Institution, serving a prison sentence for a prior crime. Berz, who was a criminal defense attorney for 30 years and a prosecutor before that, told Clemment that lawyers routinely make arrangements to visit their clients wherever they are incarcerated, and don’t wait until clients are transported to more convenient lockups.