Lawyer Ian Carleton removed himself after a status conference in which Vermont Superior Court Judge John Wesley rejected defendant John Grega's request for his attorney to continue as his public defender.
Grega, 50, was released on bail Aug. 22 after new DNA evidence prompted Wesley to throw out his conviction in his wife's slaying and order a new trial -- following eight years of pro-bono work by Carleton.
Grega sent a letter to Wesley on Friday asking him to appoint Carleton as his public defender, claiming he is "completely indigent" and unable to pay Carleton for the lengthy work estimated for his defense.
He said in the letter that the state Office of the Defender General, which assigns and pays for public defenders, cannot be trusted to represent him at a new trial because its attorneys mishandled his defense in the past.
At Tuesday's status conference, Wesley rejected Grega's request, explaining he had no authority to supersede the discretion of the defender general in assigning counsel.
"This is no doubt an unusual case, but it's not so unusual that we're going to depart from settled law," Wesley said.
"This is a big case and it's going to require a lot of time and energy," Carleton said outside the courtroom. He said he received a small government stipend at one point, but otherwise represented Grega for free.
Gretchen Bennett, executive director of the New England Innocence Project, praised Carleton's pro-bono work and said her group would maintain a role in Grega's defense.
"Everything is incredibly up in the air right now," she said.
Grega must either accept an attorney assigned by the defender general or represent himself. A former head prison law librarian, Grega has done significant work in his own defense.
"We've got David versus Goliath here," he told reporters after the judge's ruling.
The defender general's office did not return a call seeking comment.
In his letter to Wesley, Grega said he was "deeply disturbed" by the behavior of the office when its lawyers briefly joined his defense team earlier this year.
He accused the office of speaking to the media against his wishes, making little effort in his case and of trying to persuade Grega's relatives to convince him he should take a plea deal.
"I am very worried by the thought of my life being held in their hands," Grega wrote.
Grega was convicted less than a year after his wife, Christine, was found dead in a bathroom at the West Dover, Vt., condominium where the couple was vacationing with their 2-year-old son in 1994.
After years of rejected appeals and failed legal battles, DNA tests conducted in May by Vermont's crime lab cast doubt on Grega's conviction. The sample taken from inside Christine Grega's body showed it was from someone other than Grega. The analysis also ruled out several people who might have contaminated the sample.
Wesley vacated Grega's conviction after prosecutors agreed to a new trial. A trial date has not been set. Grega is due back in court Sept. 26.
In the meantime, Grega has been ordered to live with his mother in Lake Ronkonkoma and check in with police daily.
In his letter to Wesley, Grega said he was struggling to adapt to life outside a jail cell.
"I am still traumatized and acclimating to my newfound freedom," he wrote.