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Attorney Removed In Highland Park Murder Case

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Philip Vatamaniuc (Credit: Lake County Sheriff)

Philip Vatamaniuc (Credit: Lake County Sheriff)

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WAUKEGAN, Ill. (STMW) – The defense attorney for Philip Vatamaniuc, charged with the murder of Colin Nutter, was removed from the case Tuesday by a Lake County judge.

Judge Victoria Rossetti agreed with a motion from prosecutors claiming that defense attorney Robert Ritacca’s representation of Vatamaniuc, as well as a potential material witness in the case who is facing a separate drug charge, created a conflict of interest.

After the ruling, Rossetti told Vatamaniuc, who remains in the Lake County Jail on a $5 million bond, that he will be allowed several phone calls to discuss the situation with his family and decide whether to hire another attorney or request a public defender.

Rosetti set a status hearing on the attorney issue June 25 for the 17-year-old Highland Park resident, whose trial had been scheduled to begin this week.

Immediately after the ruling, Ritacca said he will appeal the judge’s decision at the appellate court level.

Assistant State’s Attorney Reginald Mathews, who filed the motion to disqualify Ritacca, argued prior to the ruling that it was a conflict for Ritacca to represent Vatamaniuc because he is also representing Vito Damore, a potential witness in the murder case, on an unrelated charge.

Mathews said that if Ritacca counseled Damore to cooperate with the state in the Vatamaniuc case, it would be a disservice to Vatamaniuc. At the same time, Mathews also noted that it could be detrimental to Damore if he does not cooperate.

The situation also sets up the possibility that an appeals court could overturn a potential conviction of Vatamaniuc based on the representation conflict, Mathews said.

“The consequences are astronomical,” said Mathews, noting Vatamaniuc faces a possible life sentence because he is charged with enhanced first-degree murder for allegedly being the shooter.

According to prosecutors, Vatamaniuc arranged to buy marijuana from Nutter the morning of the murder along with Benjamin Schenk, 20, of Highwood; and Michael Coffee, 18 of Highland Park. The meeting took place in Nutter’s car, where he was shot in the head, officials said.

In court Tuesday, Mathews said Damore was allegedly the initial target in a plan by the three defendants to rob a drug dealer. He also is a potential witness to statements that implicate Vatamaniuc, prosecutors said.

Attorney James Schwarzbach, who served as special counsel for Vatamaniuc on Tuesday, argued that any ruling to disqualify Ritacca would be premature until it is determined whether any of Damore’s testimony would be used in the trial.

Schwarzbach also said that removing Ritacca from the case “would be a direct attack on the defendant’s Sixth Amendment rights to counsel of his choice.”

Rossetti said in her ruling that the court has the discretion to override counsel of choice in certain circumstances, including cases of potential serious conflict.

Vatamaniuc and Schenk are both charged as the shooter in the case. Potential witnesses have identified both men as being the triggerman, prosecutors said.

Coffee, who rejected a plea deal offer Monday, also faces enhanced murder charges because a firearm was used in the case. He could be sentenced to up to 75 years if convicted.

(Source: Sun-Times Media Wire © Chicago Sun-Times 2014. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.)

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