Baldeo Taneja and Raminder Kaur

A Maryland judge has ordered a new trial in one of the Washington region’s most unusual murder cases in recent years, citing a problem seen around the nation: public defenders too overworked to do their jobs properly.

“I think this is an example of what happens when we ask the public defenders to do what we’re currently asking them to do. It’s untenable,” Montgomery County Circuit Court Judge Michael Mason said in a ruling that overturned the conviction of Raminder Kaur.

The new trial for Kaur is set for for Aug. 15.

Kaur, 65, was found guilty last year amid allegations that she pulled out a snub-nose revolver along a street in Germantown and fired three shots into her husband’s ex-wife. Kaur then allegedly slipped into a car driven by her husband and hustled to an Amway conference in what prosecutors said was a bid to secure their alibis. Both Kaur and her husband, Baldeo Taneja, a 64-year-old PhD-level biostatistician, were found guilty of first-degree murder.

In his order this month for a new trial, Mason said that Kaur had wanted to testify against her husband but was privately and improperly told by her attorney that she couldn’t. That prevented jurors from hearing an entirely different account: Kaur’s husband drugged Kaur, slipped out of bed, donned a woman’s blouse and wig, fired the shots and later confessed to Kaur that he’d “finished” his ex-wife.

Preeta Gabba (Courtesy of Montgomery County State's Attorneys Office)

Mason said the veteran public defender in the case — Alan Drew — is normally a good lawyer. In the six months before the murder trial, Mason said, he was juggling 88 felony cases.

“When you’ve got those kinds of numbers, all kinds of things get lost in the shuffle,” said Norman Lefstein, an Indiana law professor and author of a book on caseloads. “This shouldn’t be happening, but it happens all over the country. And I’ve seen it much worse.”

Lefstein is at the forefront of a movement that strikes some veteran public defenders as heretical: recording their time for specific tasks in the way private lawyers have done for decades.

“In the past, we’ve never really had compelling data,” Lefstein said.

With it, he said, public defenders will be able to show courts and governing bodies how underserved clients are. Their ultimate goal: funds to hire more public defenders and possibly spark reforms that would decriminalize minor offenses and help unclog the system.

“We’re extremely concerned about caseloads,” said Paul De­Wolfe, director of Maryland’s public defenders. “When they’re too high, they have a corrosive effect.”

But he emphasized that at the end of the day, the person on trial is the priority. Indeed, it was his office, after reviewing Kaur’s first trial, that immediately stepped in, said one its own attorneys had faltered, and asked for a new trial.

Prosecutors said murder suspect Raminder Kaur wrote this note to herself after the murder and after leaving Maryland: "You calm down. We are now in Tennessee near my home." (Courtesy of Montgomery County State's Attorneys Office)

“The driving factor in this case is that the client wanted to testify about her innocence, and her lawyer misled her,” DeWolfe said.

Drew declined to comment about the case.

The police investigation against Kaur and her husband began Oct. 12, 2013. That morning, 49-year-old Preeta Gabba left an apartment in Germantown she shared with her son, started to walk along Crystal Rock Drive and was shot dead. Three witnesses said they’d seen another woman walking near Gabba when she was shot.

Detectives zeroed in on a contentious divorce Gabba had gone through with her ex-husband, who was upset over alimony payments. The detectives tracked him down in Tennessee, where he’d moved with his new wife, and on Oct. 13, 2013, pulled over the pair in Nashville. Inside their car, they found the weapon used in Gabba’s killing, another gun, about $3,000 in cash, hair dye and a wig.

The couple were brought to Maryland and indicted on first-degree murder charges. Taneja, the husband, hired a private lawyer.

Kaur, the wife, qualified for a public defender, and her case was given to Drew, the veteran in the Montgomery office. A dapper dresser well liked in the courthouse, Drew often took complicated, serious felony cases.

At the time, he was delving into the defense of Nathaniel Morales, accused of fondling teenage boys decades earlier. Drew soon had two other thorny cases: A onetime Montgomery County teacher accused of raping a middle school student and sexually abusing more than a dozen elementary school students, and a real estate appraiser accused of trolling beer-pong tournaments and getting young men drunk before raping them at his home.

For the Kaur case, he weighed whether to use expert witnesses to try to establish that Kaur’s upbringing in India made her feel subservient to her husband — such that even if she’d known he’d killed his ex-wife, she never would have told police. At one hearing, he told a judge that he was trying to persuade his client to testify.

As the trial approached, Drew was in contact with his client 22 times, but few of those were in person, according to Mason’s ruling. Drew tried but couldn’t get the trial delayed.

Opening statements began July 29. During a break, Drew had to race to another courtroom for a hearing in the beer-pong case. Back in the Kaur courtroom, prosecutors mounted their case against Kaur and Taneja, including showing that the couple purchased handguns in Nashville and that Taneja attended a gun-training class.

Drew saw an opportunity. He shifted his defense, asserting that a different Indian woman went to the training class with Taneja. But Montgomery detectives quickly tracked the woman down in Boston, proved she had an ironclad alibi on the date of the shooting and brought her into court to testify. “There went that defense,” Mason would later say in a hearing on Drew’s lawyering. “It just ended up blowing up on him.”

Toward the end of the trial, Kaur and Drew had a quiet conversation during a lull in court activity, according to court records. Kaur told Drew about a recent conversation she’d had with her husband while together in a sheriff’s van, where Taneja told Kaur that he had “dosed” her with medication, slipped out, donned the wig and blouse, and shot his ex-wife.

Kaur told Drew that she wanted to testify about it. But Drew didn’t think the judge would allow her to testify against her co-defendant husband, and he worried how she would fare on cross-examination, according to court records.

“Trial counsel told her that she could not testify,” Mason ruled, referring to Drew. “The precise words that he used are not entirely clear, but it’s clear to me that he indicated to her that the judge would not permit her to testify.”

It isn’t certain, of course, that jurors would have believed her words. But what Mason concluded was that she should have been allowed to speak them. “I don’t think there’s any more significant right that a defendant has, except by right to trial by jury,” he said.

Mason made it clear that point alone — workload or not — was enough to overturn Kaur’s conviction and order a new trial. But in his ruling, Mason repeatedly placed Drew’s conduct in the context of how busy he was.

“While there are some cases that you can try on the seat of your pants, a first-degree murder case is not one of those cases,” Mason said. “And I think Mr. Drew is a very good attorney. I think Mr. Drew cared a lot about his clients. I think, frankly, Mr. Drew was simply overwhelmed by the number of cases that he had.”

That’s hardly a new problem for public defenders — dating back for decades. In 2012, then-Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr. called their caseloads and staff shortages a “crisis.”

Many times, when asking for more money, public defenders have been their worst enemies — unable to account for precisely how they spend their time and how much time certain crimes take to defend. In Missouri, such an analysis last year documented that for certain felony crimes, lawyers were spending less than one-fifth the time that was required. Advocates for public defenders are positioning them for a legally justified endgame: refusing to take on new clients because it would violate a lawyer’s duty to provide effective counsel.

“We’re going to have to say no to trial courts,” Stephen Hanlon, general counsel to the National Association for Public Defense, told an audience at a major criminology conference in Washington on Thursday. “And we’re going to have to have the data and the analytics to stand up to them.”

Not everyone in the criminal justice system is sold on the idea that public defenders should be singled out for how busy they are. Local prosecutors such as Eric Zahnd, past president of the Missouri Association of Prosecuting Attorneys and board member of the National District Attorneys Association, said everyone in the system — public defenders, prosecutors, court staff — is being asked to move more quickly, an expectation he said isn’t entirely unreasonable.

“Technology has changed all of our jobs,” Zahnd said, “and we ought to be more efficient.”