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“This is why we become lawyers”: the Watkins counsel speak
Lawyers talk about the challenges and rewards of representing parties to the highly charged, nationally publicized Watkins visitation case.
So you think your divorce clients have dysfunctional relationships?
Consider Jennifer S. Watkins and her in-laws, fixtures in the courts and the nightly news in central Illinois for two years, as a Rule 23 order of the Illinois Appellate Court, entered February 3, 2011, sets forth.
In 2007, after only about one year of marriage, Jennifer and Steven Watkins separated. Jennifer and their infant daughter, S.W., moved in with her parents and grandparents.
In early 2008, Steven filed a petition for dissolution of marriage, seeking custody of S.W. According to the appellate court, throughout the dissolution proceedings, custody and visitation were disputed, involving DCFS, the police, and the Cass County circuit court on various occasions.
On November 25, 2008, Steven was shot and killed in Jennifer's residence when attempting to exercise his court-ordered visitation.
In December 2009, Steven's parents, Dale and Penny Watkins, filed a petition for grandparent visitation under 750 ILCS 5/607(a-5). The trial court conducted a two-day hearing on the Watkins's petition in September 2010 and granted the petition.
Jennifer appealed. In a 35-page order, the appellate court upheld the trial court's judgment. In February 2011, the supreme court denied Jennifer's petition for leave to appeal. In the meantime, Jennifer's grandmother, Shirley Skinner, had been charged with and convicted of Steven's murder.
As this issue of the IBJ went to press, Jennifer was in police custody in Florida, awaiting extradition to Illinois after having been found in contempt of court for failing to appear for hearings or to follow the court's visitation orders. S.W. remains in Florida with other relatives.
In addition to generating a stream of local news stories - and a few national ones - the case inspired a now-stalled legislative proposal (HB 1604) to allow judges to suspend the driver's licenses of visitation scofflaws.
Jennifer's attorney, Michael K. Goldberg of Chicago, no longer represents her. And Dale and Penny have seen their granddaughter only about four times since their son's death, their attorneys, Michael Metnick and Nicole Nelson of Springfield, said.
“I tried to get everyone to focus on the law”
Metnick and Goldberg spoke to the IBJ about some of the respective challenges each faced in the litigation. "Almost everything that could have happened, did," said Goldberg. Nevertheless, both lawyers say they're glad they took on the matter.
For Goldberg, representing a controversial client was perhaps the most challenging aspect of the matter. "Many people speculated that Jennifer was the one who shot the dad," he said. "I tried to get everyone to focus on the law and on this child. I argued that if this were the Jones v Smith case and the dad had died, we wouldn't even be here, because the statute has a very high threshold for what you need to allow grandparent visitation."
One difficult decision for Goldberg was moving for recusal of the trial judge. Though his client hadn't testified, Goldberg said, "In my opinion, the judge had questioned her ability to be truthful. It was an emotional hearing, and while I knew the judge was excellent, honest, and fair throughout the litigation, I felt that some of the discussions on the record regarding my client's ability to tell the truth required me to ask him to recuse himself." A judge from another county denied the motion.
Another challenge was his client's moving out of state without consulting him and without court approval during the pendency of the appeal. "An appellate court justice asked at oral argument why Jennifer wasn't in Illinois and whether I knew where she was. Because of my duties as her attorney, I was unable to answer."
After the appellate court handed down its decision, Goldberg moved to withdraw from the case pending in the trial court, though at the same time he was preparing the petition for leave to appeal on Jennifer's behalf. "The other side contested my ability to file a PLA while I was trying to withdraw. We briefed that in all three courts, trial, appellate, and supreme. Eventually, I was allowed to withdraw."
A “long journey”
Metnick said his clients initially contacted him not about visitation, but because months had passed with no charges for their son's murder. On inquiring of local law enforcement authorities, he was told, "We're investigating it." Metnick says he'd wait a while, make some more contacts, and hear the same response.
"I tried to get the state police involved. I wrote to elected officials and to the interim director of the ISP, since he was going through confirmation hearings." In the end, the national television program "48 Hours" did a segment on the case, the Illinois State's Attorneys Appellate Prosecutor's Office took over, and Skinner was charged and convicted.
How to assess who to contact, how much noise to make, and how often to make it, Metnick says, especially in a small area, is a dilemma. "You have to deal with people. I'm a criminal defense attorney, but suddenly I was on the side of the prosecution." To attorneys faced with similar situations, Metnick advises, "It can be a long journey. You need to find the decisionmaker. Sometimes that's very difficult."
Metnick doesn't know why it took as long as it did for charges to be brought or whether his actions had anything to do with the ultimate prosecution, but says, "Many people worked on this. The media didn't let it go away. I wasn't directing the media, but when they contacted me, I gave them information."
Goldberg said that despite his loss, "It felt good as an attorney to represent a person that the community has treated as an outcast and do a very professional job on behalf of a person that I wouldn't necessarily go out for a drink with. I like to think that being able to represent an unpopular person and an unpopular cause is part of being an attorney." Of the difficulties he and his clients faced, Metnick said, "This is why we become lawyers, to deal with these challenges."
The Springfield State Journal-Register has reported the Watkins matter in depth. To read more, search the newspaper's archives at www.sj-r.com.