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updated: 8/30/2012 4:01 PM

Court: Even juveniles deserve strong legal defense

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Associated Press

SPRINGFIELD -- Lawyers are supposed to win cases for their clients. Lawyers in the juvenile justice system want what's best for troubled children.

And when the two impulses are in conflict, the attorney should focus on presenting the best possible defense, a deeply divided Illinois Supreme Court ruled Thursday.

The court ordered a new trial for a teenager known as Austin M., who was found guilty -- or "adjudicated delinquent" in legal terminology -- of sexually abusing two foster children living in his home in 2005.

The justices ruled that Austin was denied a proper trial in 2007 because his lawyer mixed his duty as a defense attorney with concerns about what the parents wanted and what would be best for the teen in the long run.

Juveniles, like adults in criminal cases, deserve "an attorney whose singular loyalty is to the defense of the juvenile," Justice Anne Burke wrote for the majority.

She said attorney Anthony Novak, with the trial judge's support, saw his role as a combination of defense attorney and guardian for Austin and his co-defendant and brother, Ricky.

Novak said at the trial that he and Austin's parents wanted to establish the truth of the situation and get the teens treatment if necessary. He acknowledged that he wasn't handling the case the same way he would if an adult were accused of the crime. Novak did not cross-examine the foster children who were accusing Austin and Ricky or challenge testimony about a one-sentence confession Austin supposedly made to police.

Because of that confession, which Austin and his father later denied he made, Austin was found guilty and sentenced to probation, while his brother was acquitted.

"The minor is entitled to an attorney who is dedicated to providing the minor with a zealous defense, an attorney who will hold the prosecution to its burden of proof. The time for `best interests' considerations is at the disposition phase," said Burke, who was joined by three other justices Thursday.

Two others agreed Austin's conviction should be overturned but objected to a new trial, arguing there wasn't enough evidence to support the charges.

The seventh member of the court, Justice Robert Thomas, disagreed entirely. He said the majority decision "is completely unfounded and finds no support in the record." He scolded the majority for demeaning "a fine performance" by Austin's defense attorney.

Novak was on vacation and couldn't be contacted immediately, his office said. The appellate defenders who handled Austin's appeal did not immediately return a call seeking comment.

Attorney General Lisa Madigan's office had no immediate comment Thursday morning.

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