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    Monday, August 08, 2022

    Carpenter's lawyers take the stand in their own defense

    Rockville — Defense attorneys Hugh Keefe and Tara Knight, a powerful couple in Connecticut legal circles, defended Beth Ann Carpenter at her high-profile murder-for-hire trial in 2002.

    Carpenter lost and claims now that she had "ineffective counsel."

    Called separately to the witness stand Monday in Superior Court by Carpenter's new lawyers, Norman A. Pattis and Susan E. Nugent, Keefe and Knight answered questioned about their trial strategy. The couple, prominent defense attorneys from separate law firms in New Haven, served as co-counsel for Carpenter and were later married.

    Convicted of capital felony, the 51-year-old former attorney is serving a sentence of life without the possibility of parole for hatching a plot with her lover and boss, attorney Haiman Clein, to have her brother-in-law Anson "Buzz" Clinton III killed in 1994. Having exhausted all her criminal appeals, she has filed a civil petition, called a habeas corpus, and is trying to convince Judge Samuel J. Sferrazza to grant her a new trial.

    Carpenter had testified last week that she paid Keefe $200,000 for her defense. But by the time her case reached trial, Keefe and Knight had been appointed as special public defenders, compensated by the state to represent Carpenter because she was out of money, according to testimony.

    Carpenter claims her attorneys failed to advise her about the consequences of rejecting the plea bargaining process and being convicted at trial. Keefe, testy at times and expansive at others under questioning by Pattis, testified that Carpenter was never interested in negotiating a deal while her case was pending, and that his discussions with State's Attorney Kevin T. Kane centered on "him dropping the charges completely against Beth."

    Kane was the top prosecutor in New London, where Carpenter was tried, before he was promoted to Chief State's Attorney for Connecticut in 2006. Keefe testified that in 1995, before Carpenter was charged, Kane said that whoever came forward first to cooperate in the case would get "the brass ring." Keefe said he told Kane to "stop talking in riddles" and that the discussion ultimately went nowhere.

    After her arrest, "I offered her lock stock and barrel in exchange for dropping the charges," Keefe testified.

    Keefe said he thought the case, with no DNA or other strong physical evidence against his client, was "tryable," and said Carpenter was adamant that she would not accept a plea offer involving anything more than time served.

    Knight, under questioning by Nugent, said the theme of the defense was "a slim motive and a vindictive, crazed witness against Beth." Clein, the former lover who had arranged for hitman Mark Despres to kill Clinton, had turned on her after she helped authorities capture him at a phone booth in California. The defense painted him as an obsessed, drug-addicted fraud. The defense claimed that the state's alleged motive for Clinton's murder, a custody battle with the victim involving Carpenter's niece, Rebecca, was "not as big a deal as the state was making it to be," Knight testified.

    Both Knight and Keefe admitted Carpenter did "poorly" when she took the witness stand at her trial, though Knight said they spent an entire weekend doing mock direct and cross-examinations in preparation for her testimony. She said they listened to the state's case before deciding whether she would testify and asked her to sign an affidavit saying she understood the pros and cons.

    "We were very careful in this case," Knight testified. "This was a huge case with huge consequences, and frankly, we wanted to be careful about what would be said 10 to 15 years later. We know there are habeas cases."

    They told Carpenter, before she took the stand, that they didn't think things were "going great," especially in light of damaging testimony by attorney Jeremiah Donovan, who had been consulted by Clein following the murder. Donovan testified that in a meeting with Clein before Clein developed animosity toward Carpenter, Clein told him how Carpenter was "at me and at me and at me" to arrange the murder.

    Carpenter claims she suffers from a dependent personality disorder that left her powerless in her relationship with Clein, who her attorneys say is a narcissist with an antisocial personality disorder. Knight attempted to introduce testimony from psychologist Robert Novelly about the codependence disorder at the trial but it was not allowed by Judge Robert J. Devlin Jr.

    "It would have been very helpful for the jury to understand the relationship with Haiman Clein so they didn't punish her for continuing the relationship with him (after the murder)," Knight testified.

    Clein, who took a plea deal and is serving a 35-year prison sentence, is expected to be called to the witness stand when the trial resumes today. It is unclear whether he will testify, since he has refused to cooperate when approached by Pattis and Nugent in the past.

    Novelly, the psychologist, is also expected to be called.

    Unlike her original trial, which was covered by multiple media outlets, Carpenter's habeas proceeding has been relatively low-key. She is transported daily from the Janet S. York Correctional Center and led, shackled, into the basement courtroom by correction officers. On Monday, her mother, aunt, uncle and niece were in the gallery. Clinton's siblings and daughter were also in attendance.

    k.florin@theday.com

    Twitter: @KFLORIN

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