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Public defender in Jonelle Matthews murder case withdraws due to 'conflict of interest'

Steve Pankey appeared in court Tuesday with new defense counsel in the 1984 kidnapping and murder case.

GREELEY, Colo. — The public defender who took over Steven Pankey's defense last year in the 1984 death of 12-year-old Jonelle Matthews has withdrawn from the case, citing an "irreconcilable conflict of interest."

The issue of Pankey's representation was the focus of a court hearing Tuesday in Weld County District Court, though specifics of the conflict weren't discussed. Judge Timothy Kerns set a closed hearing for May 12 to address the issue.

On April 1, the Colorado Office of the Public Defender in Greeley filed a motion requesting withdrawal from the case and appointment of alternate defense counsel.

The office made the request "due to an irreconcilable conflict of interest pursuant to the Colorado Rules of Professional Conduct," according to court records.

Kerns granted the motion on April 11 and appointed new defense attorneys to the case, according to records.

> The video above from Nov. 4, 2021, is about the mistrial declared in the trial of Steve Pankey. 

This makes the second time in six months that Pankey has been appointed new attorneys.

The lawyer that represented him through a two-week trial withdrew shortly after the proceedings ended in a mistrial in November, citing the toll that a retrial would take on his small practice and his advancing age. A public defender took over Pankey's defense at that time.

RELATED: Defendant in Jonelle Matthews case gets new lawyer ahead of potential retrial

The jury in the trial couldn't reach a consensus on charges of first-degree murder, felony murder and second-degree kidnapping; however, jurors did reach a unanimous guilty verdict on a charge of false reporting, a misdemeanor with a maximum sentence of six months.

Pankey has already spent more time than that behind bars and will likely get credit for that time if he's convicted, his attorney said.

Credit: Weld County Sheriff's Office
Steven Pankey

RELATED: Mistrial declared on murder, kidnapping charges in Jonelle Matthews case

Jonelle was last seen Dec. 20, 1984, when she was dropped off at her Greeley home following a Christmas concert. When her father returned home about an hour later, she wasn't there.

The case stumped investigators for decades until July 2019, when Jonelle's remains were found by oil workers digging in a Weld County field.

More than a year later, in October 2020, a grand jury indicted Pankey on charges of first-degree murder, second-degree kidnapping with a weapon, as well as two-sentence enhancing crimes of violence counts.

The indictment says Pankey took Jonelle from her home between 8:30 p.m. and 9:30 p.m. Dec. 20, 1984. At some point during the kidnapping, Pankey shot Mathews “intentionally and after deliberation,” the indictment says.

Credit: File
Jonelle Matthews

Pankey – who ran for governor in 2014 and 2018 in Idaho – disclosed in a 2019 interview with KTVB that he’d given a DNA sample in the case and that his home had been searched.

Prosecutors conceded during the trial that there was no DNA linking Pankey to the crime. Analysts tried but were unable to recover any useable DNA from Jonelle's remains or clothing, which were buried in a field for more than three decades.

Prosecutors relied heavily during the trial on circumstantial evidence and Pankey's statements and odd behaviors over the years to paint him as her killer.

> Video below: Jonelle Matthews' parents talk about coming back to Colorado, hoping to find answers:

>Janet Oravetz and Wilson Beese contributed to the reporting of this story. 

RELATED: Jonelle Matthews was one of the first missing children whose face was put on milk cartons

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