The attack on an attorney in an Atlantic County courtroom last month has sparked new legislation.
Assemblymen Vince Mazzeo and John Armato introduced a bill that would upgrade simple assault to aggravated assault when committed against an attorney while they are performing court duties or because of their status as a counsel.
The move came after public defender Mary Linehan was attacked by a client charged with murder during an appearance before Superior Court Judge Patricia Wild on May 14.
Robert Fountaine, 32, is accused of killing 68-year-old Thomas Hill on Feb. 11, inside the Inlet Tower, where both lived.
As Linehan spoke on his behalf during the May hearing, he kept interrupting saying he didn’t want her speaking for him. The judge told him to wait until his attorney was done speaking, but when he cursed at the judge, she ordered him out of the courtroom.
That’s when he attacked Linehan, who suffered a separated shoulder. She returned to court a few days later with a sling. Fountaine wound up with a simple assault charge.
But attorneys questioned why he wouldn’t be charged the same as if he had attacked a law enforcement officer or judge, when charges would automatically be upgraded to aggravated assault.
“Sometimes these things don’t come to light until something happens,” Mazzeo told BreakingAC. “We like to be proactive. Unfortunately, in this case, something happened, and now we have to address it.”
He said he and Armato, both D-Atlantic, have been working with Atlantic County Prosecutor Damon Tyner on the bill.
“This incident illustrated how we are all vulnerable and the penalties for an attack of a public servant should represent the severity of the crime,” Tyner said in a statement. “I am happy that our legislators saw the deficiency in the law, as I did, and agreed to change it. The public defender assaulted in the matter that prompted this change was simply doing her job, and did not deserve to be assaulted while she was standing up for the very person who became her attacker.”
Fountaine was in court again Tuesday, with his new attorney.
Former Cape May County First Assistant Prosecutor Rob Johnson has been assigned the case.
He told the judge Tuesday that there are likely three facilities he will be dealing with that have knowledge of Fountaine’s mental history, setting up a possible murder defense of diminished capacity or insanity.
Fountaine was brought out, there were five sheriff’s officers in place and a plan to make sure he sat throughout the proceeding.
“She’s filming me,” he said as he walked out to a reporter recording the appearance.
“Tell her to stop filming me,” he added to Johnson in a whisper. “It’s illegal.”
The brief appearance went off without any issues.
As for the legislation, it will now go through the Law and Public Safety Committee, which Mazzeo sits on.
“In our system, although criminal defense attorneys are our adversaries, we are all officers of the court seeking justice,” Tyner said in a statement. “Additionally, public defenders are particularly vulnerable because they do not have an opportunity to select their clients. “
In addition to the bill, Mazzeo said he would like to see attorneys trained for protection as well:
“We have to protect them through law and protect them through training.”