Triple-murder suspect files malpractice suit against ex-attorney

In this file photo from June 2015, Bethany Stanziano, left, listened as Kenneth Keith talked with his new lawyer Sandra E. Downs, right, during a hearing at the Boyle County Courthouse.
In this file photo from June 2015, Bethany Stanziano, left, listened as Kenneth Keith talked with his new lawyer Sandra E. Downs, right, during a hearing at the Boyle County Courthouse. Danville Advocate-Messenger

Kenneth Allen Keith, the former Pulaski County preacher accused of murder in the shooting deaths of three people at a Danville pawn shop in 2013, and his wife, Tracy Ann Keith, have filed a lawsuit against his former attorney, alleging multiple counts of legal malpractice and incompetent representation.

The lawsuit was filed in Boyle Circuit Court on June 1 by Gregory E.J. Coulson of the Lexington-based law firm The Coulson Firm PLLC, and Lexington attorney Steven Chad Butcher. In the lawsuit, the Keiths name Columbia attorney Bethany Stanziano, the Columbia law firm Stanziano & Catron and the estate of Bethany’s husband, Mark Joseph Stanziano, 57. Mark Stanziano was murdered outside his Columbia office in June 2014, by Clinton David Inabnitt, a mentally ill individual he was trying to help.

The Keiths are claiming breach of contract, fraud and deceit, unjust enrichment, legal malpractice, infliction of emotional distress, breach of fiduciary duty and conversion.

The Keiths claim that Bethany Stanziano, who took over as the lead attorney in the Keith death penalty case following her husband’s death, did not provide sufficient legal representation during the months she served as Keith’s attorney before her withdrawal from the case in June 2015, when she “admitted that she was unable to render effective representation to her client.”

In her motion to withdraw, Bethany Stanziano wrote that she has “no experience in death penalty work” but she had “made every effort to become fully informed as to the standards of practice for death-penalty defense,” as previously reported in The Advocate-Messenger.

Bethany Stanziano also wrote that her caseload “does not allow her to provide Mr. Keith with effective representation” and said her plate was full with “numerous serious felony cases, including an alleged vehicular homicide in McCreary County.”

Finally, Bethany Stanziano wrote that she “is not in the state of mind — emotionally — to provide effective assistance to Mr. Keith.” She added that she did not know “when, if ever” she would be “of a correct state of mind to devote” herself to the case.

Sandra E. Downs of the state Department for Public Advocacy succeeded Bethany Stanziano and co-counsel Brad Coffman of Bowling Green as Keith’s attorney in June 2015.

According to the complaint, Bethany Stanziano reportedly met with Keith “only one or two or three times during the course of the nearly one year that she represented him.”

The Keiths also allege that during one of the meetings “defendant Bethany Stanziano became involved in a physical altercation with an assistant at the Boyle County Detention Center” and “Keith was forced to intervene to stop the altercation.”

Other claims include a failure to represent Keith with the competency required by law, with allegations that “Bethany Stanziano and the corporation failed to hire a fact investigator or engage in meaningful fact investigation” and “failed to pursue mitigation or hire a mitigation specialist as required.”

In addition, she and her law firm are accused of “failing to keep the client informed of the proceedings” and “properly preserve physical and photographic evidence.”

The Keiths believe they should have been reimbursed a portion of the retainer they used to hire Mark Stanziano when Bethany Stanziano withdrew from the case and said in the lawsuit that they have “paid a fee grossly unreasonable and disproportionate to the amount of work performed.”

According to the document, the Keiths initially hired Mark Stanziano on a $150,000 retainer and paid $87,000 toward that retainer, of which $15,000 was designated as nonrefundable.

The Keiths claim they requested an accounting of the money spent and asked what amount remained in trust for the case but were “rebuffed at all stages” by defendant Bethany Stanziano and her law firm. She reportedly communicated to the Keiths that “the money is no longer available because, in the terms of defendant Stanziano, she ‘had to (expletive) eat,’” according to the complaint.

The Keiths claim that Bethany Stanziano and her law firm failed them when they “converted the funds to be deposited in trust to their own use and not in exchange for any of the defense to be provided” and failed to “make available the funds due the (Keiths) in order to hire alternative counsel.”

Bethany Stanziano allegedly inflicted “severe and long-lasting” emotional distress on the Keiths when they asked for an accounting of the money and she “became extremely hostile and responded with a message stating, in part, ‘While I have no first-hand knowledge, I have been told and heard from numerous people that (Somerset attorney Robert E.) Norfleet and (Somerset attorney Scott) Foster believe Allen is guilty and will fry.’”

The complaint says comments like these and other verbal statements made by Bethany Stanziano resulted in severe emotional stress for the Keiths, who “were facing the potential execution of himself or her spouse.”

According to the claim, the failure of Bethany Stanziano to meet with and apprise Keith of the status of the case, investigation and litigation caused emotional distress as Keith faced “potential execution without effective counsel and without the ability to retain effective counsel,” something Keith’s civil lawyers call “outrageous and intolerable” and say “offends the generally accepted standards of decency and morality.”

The Keiths are asking for actual and punitive damages on all counts, along with any legal fees associated with the lawsuit. They also demand a trial by jury on all claims.

Keith served as a preacher at Main Street Baptist Church in Burnside before he was charged with the fatal shooting of Michael Hockensmith, 35, and his wife, Angela Hockensmith, 38, both of Stanford, and gold broker Daniel Smith, 60, of Richmond.

The three were killed in September 2013 at ABC Gold, Games and More on South Fourth Street in Danville, a store co-owned by the Hockensmiths.

Keith faces the possibility of execution if convicted of murder, robbery and burglary, and is the defendant in a lawsuit filed by the mother of one of the victims.

In March 2015, attorneys asked that Keith’s trial be moved out of Boyle County because the “case is so sensational that it has been reported extensively and continuously by radio, television, newspaper and other media,” adding that “the high degree of prejudice and bias is such that it will be impossible to select a jury capable of rendering a verdict based solely on the evidence.”

No trial dates have been scheduled for either the criminal case or the civil lawsuits.