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Jury selection to begin next week in Farren's attempted murder case

Published 3:43 pm, Friday, June 13, 2014
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With no more delays available from a string of appeals filed on his own behalf, J. Michael Farren unexpectedly told a Stamford judge Thursday afternoon that he could no longer represent himself in a long awaited trial for the attempted murder of his wife, saying that the evidence against him was taking too large an emotional toll.

But with the shock of his sudden withdrawal as his own attorney still reverberating around the near empty courtroom, Judge Richard Comerford promptly assigned standby counsel Eugene Riccio and Timothy Moynahan to defend Farren, 61, in the 54-month-old case and scheduled jury selection to commence Wednesday.

Comerford's actions allowing Farren's trial to quickly move forward appear to be a stunning defeat for the former White House counsel who police said attacked his former wife, Mary Margaret Farren, with a metal flashlight on Jan. 6, 2010 -- two days after announcing she wanted a divorce.

Since April 2013, when he insisted on taking over the defense of his criminal charges as well as a civil suit brought against him by his wife that led a jury in December to award her a $28.6 million judgment, Farren has filed a flurry of motions and appeals that have, until this point anyway, all but stalled the criminal case against him.

Stamford State's Attorney David Cohen and Senior Assistant State's Attorney Richard Colangelo, the two prosecuting the case, have accused him numerous times of playing for time and Comerford has largely agreed with their protestations.

For nearly a year Farren fought to have Public Defender Barry Butler assigned to the case to represent him, but Comerford ruled against it because the former Xerox attorney's finances did not appear to qualify him for that public service.

Farren's admission Thursday afternoon of his tenuous mental state came a moment after he was told by Comerford that two appeals he filed with the state Supreme Court -- one contesting Comerford's ruling that he cannot use a defense of mental disease or defect and another requiring him to submit to a mental examination -- had been dismissed.

In his appeal, Farren called Comerford's decision to preclude him from presenting a mental disease or defect defense "prejudicial to justice, punitive by intent, unfair in the extreme and a final, irrevocable and irreparable death knell to the defendant's ability to use expert witnesses, his right to a fair trial and an infringement of his Fifth Amendment privileges."

At the end of April, Comerford ordered Farren to see a psychiatrist hired by the state in order to get his opinion on Farren's mental state at the time of the alleged assault.

But when presented with a common waiver by the psychiatrist, Farren balked at signing and the doctor would not perform the examination without it.

Farren argued that he was worried that the waiver would infringe on his rights as a self-represented party and the examination was called off.

But Colangelo explained that without the waiver being signed, the doctor's examination may not be allowed into evidence at trial. Comerford said he would not allow prosecutors to be "ambushed" at trial without its expert being able to weigh in on the opinion of a psychiatrist Farren hired to testify about his mental status on Jan. 6, 2010, and ruled that he would not be able to present an insanity defense as a result.

At the beginning of Thursday's hearing, with any stays of execution exhausted by the dismissal of his appeals, Farren said, "At this point, I do not think at this point I am competent to serve as my own attorney in this matter."

Farren explained that since taking over his own defense he has experienced a number of mental and psychiatric issues and at the end of last year, while his civil case went to trial, he was involuntarily committed to a mental institution for three weeks.

After picking a jury for over a week in that civil case, a day before the trial was to begin, Farren showed up at Hartford hospital complaining of suicidal thoughts and was committed.

"Psychologically, I can't address evidence in the case without having severe anxiety and mental issues," Farren told Comerford, adding that he needed an attorney to represent himself.

Without missing a beat, Comerford said that he would appoint Riccio and or Moynahan to represent him. The two attorneys were hired by Farren to represent him in the civil and criminal cases after his arrest.

Comerford said that he had appointed the two as stand-by counsel when Farren took over his own defense because he thought them capable of ensuring that his interests would be protected. Since taking over as his own attorney, Comerford has required that Riccio or Moynahan be present at every hearing at which Farren appears.

But Farren said Riccio and Moynahan asked to be let off the case because they could not provide an adequate defense and he wanted a new attorney.

But Comerford quickly stepped in and said Riccio and Moynahan were two of the best attorneys in the state who have tried "exceptionally difficult" criminal cases both had "exemplary" resumes in that regard.

"If you request that they be replaced, if that's what is being made here on the record today, that is not gonna happen. That request will be denied. Either or both men may assist you through in the case in jury selection or trial," Comerford said.

Farren then requested a pretrial conference with a judge so he could meet with Cohen and Colangelo to discuss a plea agreement that will in all probably include a prison term in order to resolve the case before going to trial.

Farren even asked that he be present in chambers while the discussion occurred. Comerford said he would pass his unusual request to Judge Gary White, who will preside over the pretrial negotiations. Ordinarily, Comerford explained, attorneys representing defendants looking for a plea bargain, speak to the judge and prosecutors privately in the judge's chambers.

At that point Comerford had Riccio, who was sitting in the juror's box listening on, stand by Farren while they completed the hearing and set Tuesday as the day the meeting with White will take place. Comerford said jury selection will begin the day after.

Farren declined comment when he exited the courtroom.

When reached by phone later, Riccio would only say, "I intend to defend Mr. Farren."