NEW YORK (Reuters) - Allen Stanford, the Texas financier charged with running a $7 billion Ponzi scheme, asked the federal judge overseeing his case to release him pending the start of his criminal trial, saying that his detention violated his constitutional rights.
Stanford has also fired one of his lawyers, setting up a potential showdown with U.S. District Judge David Hittner, who said last month he would not allow a fifth change to the defense team.
In a filing on Tuesday with the federal court in Houston, lawyers for Stanford said their client had been "subjected to substantial and undeniable punishment," including nearly a year of incarceration and both physical and psychological damage.
This and the prospect of more than a year of further custody until and during his trial, which is scheduled to start in January 2011, violates his constitutional rights to due process, effective assistance of counsel, a speedy trial, and an absence of excessive bail, the lawyers said.
"When Mr. Stanford surrendered to authorities, he was a healthy 59-year-old man," Stanford's Houston-based lawyer, Robert Bennett, wrote in a brief on which Harvard Law Professor Alan Dershowitz consulted.
"Mr. Stanford's pretrial incarceration has reduced him to a wreck of a man: he has suffered potentially life-impairing illnesses; he has been so savagely beaten that he has lost all feeling in the right side of his face and has lost near-field vision in his right eye," Bennett said.
Saying their client had neither the motive to flee nor the means, having been declared "indigent" by court, Stanford's lawyers urged that he be placed under house arrest at the home of his fiancee's sister, with an ankle bracelet and other travel restrictions.
The office of U.S. Attorney Jose Angel Moreno in Houston did not immediately return a call seeking comment.
A federal appeals court has twice rejected Stanford's attempts to be freed from jail pending trial, and Hittner has called Stanford a flight risk.
Stanford has been held in a Texas jail since his June 2009 arrest. In a 21-count indictment, prosecutors accused him of selling fraudulent certificates of deposit issued by his bank in Antigua.
Separately, one of Stanford's lawyers, Michael Essmyer, has asked the court for permission to withdraw from the case.
Essmyer, the managing partner at Essmyer, Tritico & Rainey LLP, cited Stanford's decision to fire him on May 14, and "irreconcilable differences" with Bennett over litigation strategy and other matters.
"The nature of the irreconcilable differences is also the fact that Mr. Bennett acts independently without lead counsel's knowledge or consent, and often in a manner that, in lead counsel's opinion, is detrimental to the best interests of the client," Essmyer wrote. He said he and his law firm "do not want to be held responsible for the actions of Mr. Bennett."
Essmyer declined to make additional comments. Bennett did not immediately return a call seeking comment.
At a hearing on April 6, Hittner raised his voice several times as Stanford refused to directly answer questions about his legal representation. The judge nonetheless agreed to let Stanford to replace his latest two lead lawyers.
"You've had 10 attorneys attempt to enter this case on your behalf," Hittner said. "I will not entertain any further substitutions."
A case manager for Hittner said the judge would consider Essmyer's request at a hearing to be scheduled.
The case is U.S. v. Stanford, U.S. District Court, Southern District of Texas, No 09-cr-00342.
Reporting by Jonathan Stempel; Additional reporting by Anna Driver in Houston; Editing by Ted Kerr