MONTPELIER — The state Supreme Court ruled Friday that a former Castleton man convicted of killing a school janitor in 1992 is entitled to a public defender to continue his appeals, even though attorneys who have looked at his case believe his legal claims have no merit.
The decision came on the 20th anniversary of the killing of a Castleton school janitor by Charles Crannell, now 70 and serving a life sentence in a Kentucky prison. The decision was in response to an appeal filed by Crannell, who argued he was entitled to a lawyer provided by the state because his conviction predated a 2004 law that forbids attorneys from filing ‘‘frivolous’’ legal cases.
It could lead to other inmates convicted before 2004 also seeking to have the state provide lawyers when filing postconviction relief claims, but Vermont Defender General Matthew Valerio said Friday that he did not know how many inmates would try to take advantage of the decision.
‘‘I am not one to cry fire in a crowded movie house,’’ Valerio said. ‘‘For some folks, postconviction relief is not something they’re interested in. If everybody who had the right to bring these cases did, we couldn’t handle it.’’
Crannell was convicted in 1995 of the 1992 stabbing death of John Kenworthy, a romantic rival. Crannell has maintained his innocence, and he filed a direct appeal. After that was rejected, he sought postconviction relief, a civil proceeding in which he asks a court to overturn his criminal conviction. His appeals and requests for relief have all been rejected.
Crannell is now serving his sentence at the Lee Adjustment Center in Beattyville, Ky., a private prison the Vermont Department of Corrections uses to hold some inmates.
Separately, the Supreme Court ruled in 1999 that it was unethical for lawyers to file frivolous legal claims. In 2004, the Legislature made that into law.
In 2010, the last lawyer provided by the office of the defender general withdrew from representing Crannell.
A judge approved the decision based on the 1999 decision. But the Supreme Court ruled that Crannell was still entitled to a public defender because his claims predated the 2004 law.
Valerio said Crannell made scores of postconviction relief claims, including ineffective lawyers during his trial and prosecutorial misconduct.
‘‘It has been through our merit review process,’’ Valerio said of Crannell’s claims. ‘‘It has been looked at by a number of lawyers, and that was the conclusion,’’ that they were without merit.
The defender general’s office gets thousands of postconviction relief petitions every year, many handwritten by inmates from prison, Valerio said.
The court’s decision could be called upon by anyone who was convicted before the 2004 law took effect and who is still under the supervision of the Department of Corrections, which could include inmates in prison or those on probation.
‘‘The real question is how many people are going to come forward with vested rights under the old statute,’’ Valerio said.