A Minnetonka attorney who represented a man shot to death five weeks ago is now the alleged killer's lawyer, a role that local legal experts say resides in an ethically complicated "gray zone."
The case involves the death of Guled Hashi Mohamed, 26, who was shot in the head May 29 outside a Minneapolis bar. Biyamin Beiti Omar, 28, was indicted for first-degree murder in connection with his death. Authorities say bad blood between the two men triggered the shooting.
Two years ago, attorney Justin Seurer was retained to represent Mohamed against second-degree assault charges for allegedly pointing a gun at three people and threatening to shoot them outside Karma nightclub in downtown Minneapolis. Mohamed pleaded guilty a year later to felony terroristic threats and received three years' probation.
Seurer confirmed last month that he was retained by Omar's family to take on the case but declined to discuss his representation or whether a potential conflict of interest exists. He did not return a telephone message left Friday.
Mohamed's sister, Amina, declined to comment on behalf of the family, citing pending court proceedings. The family's attorney, William Seeley, did not respond to a telephone message.
According to the American Bar Association's Rules of Professional Conduct, a lawyer who once represented a client cannot represent another person in the same or "substantially related matter" that could affect the interests of the former client without getting permission in writing.
Omar apparently was not involved in the bar assault. The assault and the killing aren't related, so there doesn't appear to be a violation, said Martin Cole, director of the state Office of Lawyers Professional Responsibility. But difficulty could arise if Seurer had information about Mohamed. Under the rules, he wouldn't be able to use it to benefit Omar's defense.
"You can be walking a fine line," Cole said. "Can there be issues arising? The answer is yes. But are there? I'm not in a position to say that."
Bound by ethics, constitution
Joseph Daly, a professor at Hamline University School of Law, said that while attorneys are bound by ethics, they're also bound to uphold the U.S. Constitution. The Sixth Amendment requires that people charged with a crime have a right to counsel of their choice. If the only roadblock were the possibility of upsetting Mohamed's family, Daly said, he'd take Omar's case.
"As lawyers, we work constantly in the gray zone, and there's often no clear-cut answer to the dilemmas that are put on our plate," he said. "We have to, in good faith, apply the rules and apply the Constitution and come up with our best judgment."
It's possible that Seurer understands the inner workings of the Somali community, Daly said, and his expertise led him to defend both men. The website for Seurer Law Firm says he is well-versed in multiple aspects of the law, including criminal defense.
Minneapolis criminal defense attorney Peter Wold said that although the cases aren't related, an opportunity exists to learn confidential information from Mohamed's case that could be relevant to Omar's case. However, he said, attorney-client privilege is "sacrosanct."
"That's touchy," Wold said. "I think I can understand why [Mohamed's] family would be upset. The scenario is their son had faith in this lawyer to protect his interests and confidences that he's duty-bound to protect."
Wold said he'd be reluctant to take the case without approval from Mohamed's family. "I would imagine they'd say 'How can you do it?'" he said.
Robert Sicoli, another veteran criminal defense attorney in Minneapolis, said he believes Seurer is acting within the rules by representing Omar. But he called the case "too touchy in my own personal ethics'' and wouldn't take it.
Robert Vischer, a professor and legal ethics expert at the University of St. Thomas Law School, said that although the cases aren't related, Seurer could be in a difficult ethical situation with what he may have learned while representing Mohamed, regardless if he chooses to use it.
"He can't violate the confidences of the first client, but he can't violate his duty of loyalty to the current client," Vischer said. "The duty of loyalty he has is to uncover and pursue every legitimate defense he has."
Omar remains in the Hennepin County Jail in lieu of $2 million bail. His next court appearance is July 15.
Abby Simons • 612-673-4921