January 29, 2009
Prosecutor Ghostwrites Judge's Opinion, Both Reprimanded
From the web page of the Ohio Supreme Court:
The Supreme Court of Ohio today publicly reprimanded Judge John M. Stuard of the Trumbull County Court of Common Pleas and assistant county prosecutor Christopher D. Becker for professional misconduct arising from Becker’s preparation, at Stuard’s request, of the judge’s sentencing opinion affirming the death sentence in the 2003 murder case of Donna Roberts.
Roberts’ sentence was subsequently reversed by the Supreme Court, and the case was remanded for resentencing based on the prosecutor’s improper involvement in preparation of the court’s sentencing order.
The Court adopted findings by the Board of Commissioners on Grievances & Discipline that, following Stuard’s personal review and agreement with the jury’s recommendation of a death sentence, Stuard and Becker engaged in improper ex parte communications when, without notifying defense counsel, Stuard gave his notes to Becker and asked Becker to draft the court’s sentencing opinion. The Court also found ex parte communication violations when Stuard and Becker subsequently exchanged edited versions of the sentencing order.
The Court also agreed with the board’s findings that Becker’s actions violated the state attorney discipline rule that bars conduct prejudicial to the administration of justice, and that Stuard’s conduct violated the judicial ethics canon that requires a judge to “respect and comply with the law and … act at all times in a manner that promotes public confidence in the integrity of the judiciary.”
Finding that there were no aggravating factors in the case and that both Stuard and Becker had acknowledged the impropriety of their actions, had no prior disciplinary infractions and enjoyed reputations in the community for honesty, good character and professional competence, the Court adopted the board’s recommendation of a public reprimand as the appropriate sanction for both parties.
The Court dismissed a disciplinary charge that was brought against a second assistant prosecutor, Kenneth Bailey, who reviewed the draft sentencing order and recommended several changes. The Court agreed with the disciplinary board’s finding that Bailey had not engaged in improper ex parte communications with the judge and was not guilty of misconduct.
The court's opinion is linked here. (Mike Frisch)
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