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Lawyer says he lacked death penalty case training

TOPEKA, Kan. (AP) -- A northeast Kansas attorney proposed Tuesday during a disciplinary hearing that he be allowed to keep his law license if he agrees to never again defend another murder case in court.

Dennis Hawver faces disbarment or indefinite suspension of his law license for the handling of the capital murder case of Phillip D. Cheatham Jr. of Topeka.

The Topeka Capital Journal reported Wednesday ( ) that Hawver acknowledged during Tuesday's hearing that he lacked the training to handle capital cases.

"I regret that Mr. Cheatham has been imperiled," Hawver told the panel. "I recognize I made a mistake by taking the case."

Cheatham, 40, was convicted in Shawnee County in the December 2003 killing of Annette Roberson and Gloria Jones and in the wounding of Annetta Thomas at a Topeka home.

The Kansas Supreme Court ruled in January that Cheatham didn't get a fair trial because his attorney, Dennis Hawver of Ozawkie, spent only 200 hours preparing for the case, which the court called "appallingly low for a death penalty defense and even more stunning when all but 60 of those hours, as Hawver testified, were spent in trial."

Hawver, 70, has practiced law for 38 years. He asked the Kansas Board for Discipline of Attorneys to order him to not handle any more murder cases but allow him to practice other forms of law in his Jefferson County practice.

Deputy disciplinary administrator Alexander Walczak recommended that the board disbar Hawver if he knowingly violated ethics laws, or that his license be suspended if it was a case of negligently violating the rules.

Walczak told the panel that Hawver accepted a one-year diversion agreement in April 2003 for his representation of a woman in an equal employment rights case, which the woman lost. He took the Cheatham case just months later.

The panel asked Hawver if he thought he should have taken the Cheatham case based on the results of the employment case.

"I didn't know at that time that (a capital case) would be handled any differently than any other murder cases," Hawver said.

Walczak said the two cases indicated that Hawver wasn't well versed in either type of law and not qualified to represent clients.

Hawver said he never took continuing education courses regarding death penalty cases and that he wasn't aware of American Bar Association standards for handling capital cases.

"I understand now that my defense of Mr. Cheatham could be viewed as being deficient. I agree," Hawver said.