Kidnapper wants felony overturned
GARDNERVILLE – Former emergency room physician Richard Conte, serving up to 15 years for kidnapping and drugging his ex-wife, wants his conviction overturned, claiming ineffective representation and other issues.
His former lawyer, William Cole, was cross-examined for more than five hours over two days this week as to his defense of the 56-year-old Conte, now incarcerated at the Lovelock Correctional Center.
Conte is eligible for parole June 18, 2008, according to Nevada Department of Corrections records.
According to Conte’s petition, Cole allowed his client to plead guilty to an improper charge, failed to advise him after conviction of his right to appeal, didn’t conduct a thorough investigation of the case or attempt to suppress statements and evidence against Conte.
Through his court-appointed lawyer Terri Roeser, Conte also stated that he has been diagnosed with multiple sclerosis and early onset of the disease contributed to his aberrant behavior and might have offered “heart-breaking mitigation” had the information been used in his defense.
He pleaded guilty to kidnapping Lark Gaithright-Elliott from Salt Lake City, drugging her, and bringing her back to his home in northern Douglas County on June 21, 2002.
The couple had been married in December 2001, but Gaithright-Elliott filed for divorce 90 days later.
According to Gaithright-Elliott, she found Conte inside her Salt Lake City home on June 19, 2002, holding a gun in one hand and a stun gun in the other.
She said he forced her to drink a “cocktail” of the tranquilizer Ativan, cough syrup and vodka. She said she was unconscious for much of the 300-mile trip to Nevada and awoke handcuffed to his bed.
He released her just as deputies arrived at his door.
“The trial counsel did nothing to explore why a normally law-abiding professional individual would suddenly engage in such poor judgment and participate in the offenses he was charged with,” Roeser wrote in her motion.
The matter was heard Monday and Tuesday before District Judge Dave Gamble.
Cole testified that he was retained by Conte in August 2002, taking the case over from Carson City lawyer Patrick Walsh.
When Roeser brought up the lack of a record of Cole’s billable hours, the Stateline lawyer said Conte agreed to a flat fee of $15,000 for 75 hours at $200 an hour.
Cole said he knew early in the case that it would not go to trial because of Conte’s statements to police and the evidence against him.
“It appeared to me this was not a triable case,” Cole testified. “From his own mouth, (Conte) had made statements that incriminated him.”
Cole said a plea negotiated with prosecutor Mark Jackson was in the defendant’s best interest.
In exchange for Conte’s guilty plea to second-degree kidnapping and administering a drug in commission of a felony, the state would drop a deadly weapon enhancement that could have doubled the penalty and additional drug and stolen property charges.
Roeser challenged Cole over how he and lawyer Loren Graham set fees for Conte’s defense on a federal indictment.
Cole said he told Conte he didn’t have experience in federal court and recommended Graham who worked in the same building at Stateline.
Cole said he and Graham split a $10,000 retainer which Roeser claimed violated Supreme Court rules.
Cole testified he couldn’t remember some conversations with his client or details of memos in the 4-1/2 years since the sentencing.
According to Cole, the only aspect of the plea bargain Conte disliked was the forfeiture of numerous guns, ammunition and surveillance equipment.
On Dec. 17, 2002, when Conte pleaded guilty, he told Judge Dave Gamble he understood the charges against him and the possible penalties and that he wasn’t forced into the agreement or promised anything other than the terms of the negotiated settlement.
The day of the plea, Conte told Gamble he was pleading guilty “to avoid going through a trial and confronting the people that I’ve had – that I’ve dealt with.”
Gamble continued the hearing to June 22 when Graham is to testify.
Conte, who was housed at Douglas County Jail on Monday and Tuesday, was returned to the Lovelock Correctional Center.
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