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In a small claims case local black activist Patrick Thompson filed against his former attorney, Harvey Welch, a judge decided that legal malpractice had been committed and ruled in Thompson’s favor. Thompson filed the suit pro se, arguing his own case, while Welch was represented by Urbana attorney David Rumley. The $3,000 in attorney fees that Welch must pay back, Thompson says he is donating to Champaign Urbana Citizens for Peace and Justice, who helped raise funds for his legal defense.
Thompson had hired Welch to defend him against charges of sexual abuse and home invasion in a trial that took place in 2006. After Welch called only one witness, Thompson was found guilty. Dropping Welch, Thompson hired two new attorneys, Bob Kirchner and Ruth Wyman, who filed a post-trial motion to reverse the guilty verdict. In a rare courtroom decision, Judge Harry Clem found that Welch had provided “ineffective assistance of counsel” and granted Thompson a new trial. This last May, with legal counsel provided by Kirchner and Wyman, a jury found Thompson not guilty of the criminal charges.
Last year, Thompson filed a small claims suit against Welch for return of the $3,000 he had paid him in attorney fees. The key piece of evidence Thompson submitted was Judge Clem’s ruling that Welch provided ineffective counsel. After he was found not guilty, Thompson also entered this as further evidence.
On August 25, 2008, Judge Holly Clemons ruled in favor of Thompson. In order to determine legal malpractice in a civil suit, Thompson had to prove that he would have been proven innocent beyond a preponderance of evidence. This was accomplished, Judge Clemons ruled, when Thompson was acquitted in the May 2008 trial.
Harvey Welch works as a Public Defender in Ford County, but is based in Urbana and takes numerous cases in Champaign County. Welch handles hundreds of cases each year, and has been in practice since 1980. One must wonder how many of Welch’s clients have been found guilty because of his incompetence.
This small claims case sets an important legal precedent in Illinois for other individuals wrongly convicted if their decisions are reversed due to ineffective counsel. As Judge Clemons herself admitted, this case was “a rather unusual situation.” A similar case at the Champaign County courthouse is unheard of in recent memory.
Welch is ordered to pay back $3,000 to Thompson, as well as cover the cost of court fees.
When asked, Rumley would not confirm or deny that he would appeal the decision. Welch himself was not present for the final ruling.
Also absent were any other members of the local media. Incidentally, at the same time as Thompson’s small claims case, the verdict was being announced for Robert Arnette, who was found guilty of murdering his wife. After reading of the verdict, I spoke to several members of the local press at the courthouse about the significance of Thompson’s victory in small claims court. Caught up in the frenzy of a murder case, none of them were interested in covering Thompson’s case. The News-Gazette’s Mary Schenk had been notified about past hearings in the small claims case, but not once did she show up.