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The criminal case against Thomas W. Gorski of Columbus, accused of child neglect and dealing drugs, took an unexpected twist when Bartholomew County Circuit Court Judge Stephen Heimann appointed a new defense lawyer for the 31-year-old defendant a month before his trial.
Out as Gorski’s court-appointed attorney is public defender Aaron Edwards, who has been replaced by his father, Don Edwards of Columbus, with whom the younger Edwards shares a law office. Heimann ordered the switch after a brief court hearing Tuesday at which he agreed to a motion filed by Aaron Edwards to withdraw as defense counsel.
Two weeks ago, Heimann had denied the exact same request from Aaron Edwards, but the judge changed his mind after Gorski appeared in person at Tuesday’s 9 a.m. court hearing and told the judge he wanted a new attorney, too.
Aaron Edwards had been pushing for his own removal from Gorski’s case because of what the attorney sees as a conflict of interest linked to his legal duties as a public defender paid under direct contract with Superior Court I Judge James Worton’s office for 2013. The elder Edwards is paid out of Heimann’s court budget.
County prosecutor Bill Nash lists Worton among 86 potential witnesses for Gorski’s trial, which is scheduled to start Oct. 22.
Initially, Heimann ruled there was no actual conflict of interest and said he was certain Aaron Edwards would aggressively question all the witnesses on behalf of his client. On Tuesday, though, Heimann acknowledged there could be “a perceived problem.”
Worton took office for the first time as judge of Superior Court 1 on Jan. 1, but less than six weeks before that he was a Columbus Police detective who worked directly on the criminal case against Gorski and signed search warrants used to gather evidence against Gorski and his live-in girlfriend, 22-year-old Rachel McCue, court records show.
Court filings also show that Worton was on a police call at the Gorski-McCue home in the 2800 block of Lamplight Drive two days before Rachel McCue’s 19-month-old son, Evan Jack McCue, was found lifeless and not breathing on the evening of Nov. 25, 2012, by his mother.
Police reports at the time said Rachel McCue called 911, and the toddler was rushed to Columbus Regional Hospital, where he was pronounced dead. An initial autopsy said a head injury contributed to the boy’s death, and prosecutors now allege the Gorski-McCue home also was the site of frequent drug use and drug deals that put the child at risk.
McCue is due to go on trial separately on child neglect charges starting the same day as Gorski, but her defense lawyer — Christopher Clerc of Columbus — has asked that her trial be delayed two or three months to give him more time to prepare a defense. Heimann is likely to rule on that motion next week.
Gorski and McCue each face one Class A felony count of neglect of a dependent resulting in death and a Class C felony, neglect of a dependent in connection with Evan’s death. The Class A felony carries a sentence of 20 to 50 years in jail; and a Class C felony adds two to eight years.
Although the prosecuting attorney’s office took no formal position on replacing Aaron Edwards, Nash suggested to Heimann that the Worton-Aaron Edwards contract could raise the “future appearance of impropriety,” especially if Gorski gets convicted and appeals on the grounds that he didn’t get a full and proper defense.
“I don’t want to see an argument for post-conviction relief built in before we even start the trial,” Nash said.
For his part, Gorski had complained in a letter sent to the county prosecutor’s office within the past month that Aaron Edwards had shown a “complete lack of involvement in my case.” He said he’d welcome getting a new attorney.
At least one other key legal issue remains unresolved as Gorski’s trial approaches.
Last week, the Bartholomew County prosecutor added two new felony child-neglect charges and a pair of felony drug charges against Gorski, although not against McCue.
The prosecutor wants those newer charges handled in a single trial along with Gorski’s earlier criminal counts tied to Evan Jack McCue’s death. Gorski’s defense attorney objects to that and wants the newer charges handled separately.
Two of the new Gorski charges cite his alleged treatment during 2011 and 2012 of two other children — a 3-year-old son and 1-year-old daughter — from his marriage to Laura Geilker Gorski.
Defendants Thomas W. Gorski, 31, and Rachel McCue, 22, have court dates next week in Bartholomew County Circuit Court.
Gorski: He will next appear in court at a change-of-plea hearing with his new attorney, Don Edwards, at 11:30 a.m. Wednesday.
McCue: The mother of deceased 19-month-old toddler Evan Jack McCue will have her change-of-plea hearing at 8:15 a.m. Oct. 3. Her attorney has requested a delay in her trial until at least December.
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