ELIZABETHTOWN — For the fourth time in five months, sentencing of Michael D. Rivers has been delayed.
Convicted by a jury in May, Rivers faces sentencing on first-degree manslaughter for his role in the death of Robert M. Rennie, 45, of Keeseville, who died after being brutally kicked repeatedly in August 2012.
The crime carries a maximum 25 years in prison. The jury also found Rivers guilty of gang assault.
But sentencing in this case has been pushed forward since Aug. 8 due to Rivers’s repeated objection to his legal counsel.
In court Thursday, Rivers stood with his second court-appointed attorney, Alex Shmulsky.
Wearing a black-and-white striped jail jumpsuit, he nodded to members of his family sitting on the defense side of the galley in the courtroom.
“There is a reason we can’t proceed,” Shmulsky told Essex County Judge Richard B. Meyer.
Then the lawyer asked to be relieved as Rivers’s counsel.
Shmulsky told Meyer that what Rivers had asked him to do in defense was “so distant” that “I couldn’t zealously advocate on his behalf.”
Meyer turned to Rivers and asked if he wanted to dismiss the lawyer.
“Yes, I do,” Rivers said.
“Tell me why,” Meyers said.
“We couldn’t agree on anything,” Rivers said.
Rivers sought legal counsel from the Public Defender’s Office at his arraignment in October 2012. At that time, he asked specifically for attorney Greg LaDuke, who defended Rivers at trial in June.
Rivers was set to be sentenced on Aug. 8 but asked the court to dismiss LaDuke. And the court granted that request, appointing Shmulsky.
In court Thursday, Rivers said he told Shmulsky not to say anything on his behalf in court.
“What is the point of having a lawyer if you’re not going to let them speak on your behalf?” Meyer asked.
Rivers said he thought the attorney was going to file paperwork in the case.
“I was led to believe he was filing motions,” Rivers said.
Meyers explained that trial transcripts had just been released to the lawyer, who had not had time to file motions.
“Tell me why the relationship broke down,” the judge asked again.
Rivers did not directly answer that.
“He told me he was filing motions,” Rivers replied.
The judge asked Rivers to “try to make some sense” of the failed communications.
Rivers did not reply, leaving protracted quiet as the court waited.
“You’re not entitled to choose your own attorney,” Meyer said of the assigned defense, which Rivers had requested on the day of his arrest in October 2012.
“I think you’re playing games,” Meyer said.
Then Meyer asked Rivers if he wanted to defend himself.
The convicted man said “no.”
“If I appoint another attorney, what makes you think you’re going to be more successful with them?” the judge asked Rivers.
The convicted man shrugged, and the courtroom went silent again.
Meyer then read pertinent laws to Rivers.
“It is up to counsel whether to file motions or not,” the judge said, looking at Rivers.
And it is up to counsel whether to make statements in court or not, the judge said.
“Do you really want an attorney?” Meyer asked Rivers, who answered, “Yes.”
With that, in the interest of due process, Meyers said that if a new attorney is “adversely affected or impaired” from representing Rivers in preparation for sentencing, then “I will consider you (Rivers) to have waived your right to an attorney. If you fail to cooperate, you will either have to hire counsel on your own or represent yourself.”
Rivers told the judge he understood.
The judge adjourned sentencing to reassign counsel.
‘SAFER’ TO WAIT
Members of Rennie’s family were in court Thursday, but did not want to share their thoughts about the delay.
District Attorney Kristy Sprague had prepared statements for sentencing and was ready to proceed.
After this fourth adjournment, she aligned her position with due process.
“I would rather have procedure and fundamental rights protected,” she said. “It makes less of an appealable issue in the end. It is safer to make sure he (Rivers) has adequate counsel.
“The unfortunate part is that this family (Rennie’s) has to keep going through this.”
Meyer told Rivers that the adjournment period this time would be brief.
This is the third and final case to close in connection with Rennie’s death.
Police investigators arrested the three men who had ganged up to beat up Rennie, seeking revenge because they thought he had violated an order of protection, according to testimony in all three trials.
Paul J. Taylor was sentenced last month to spend 25 years to life in prison for second-degree murder for his role in the assault. Rennie’s death was the second homicide-related felony for Taylor.
And Scott E. Denno was sentenced in August to the maximum 25 year prison term for first-degree manslaughter.
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