Wednesday, March 26, 2014

Exoneration Or Unforgivable Sin?

The Oklahoma Supreme Court, in its words, exonerated a criminal prosecutor on allegations of misconduct during the course of a rape trial:

The complainant, Oklahoma Bar Association (Bar Association), charged the respondent, Jennifer Adina Layton (respondent/Layton), with one count of professional misconduct associated with her prosecution of three men in a rape trial. The Bar Association alleged that the respondent: 1) neglected to disclose to the court and opposing counsel that her witness was going to testify inconsistently with his previous police statement; and 2) falsely denied that she had spoken to the witness before and/or during the trial. The Bar Association sought the "appropriate" imposition of discipline and the payment of costs. After the Professional Responsibility Tribunal (PRT) recommended a public censure, the Bar Association argued that "some length" of suspension is more appropriate. The respondent argues that she should not be disciplined because: 1) the circumstances surrounding the alleged events involved a miscommunication/misunderstanding with the trial judge; and 2) if she violated any rules, because it was an inadvertent mistake, she did not do so with any intent or for any ulterior motive. Upon de novo review,we agree with the respondent. The cumulative circumstances show that trial court failed to create a transcribed record of bench conferences and chamber conferences in this serious first degree rape trial. That, coupled with the complaining defense attorney's in-court behavior, and the contemporaneous testimony of the respondent, reflect the nature of the proceedings. Under the facts presented, the respondent's violation does not require the imposition of discipline. The bar disciplinary proceeding is dismissed. The respondent is exonerated of the charges, and the application to assess costs is denied.

Justice Watt dissented

The majority attempts to make Layton's lack of candor with the court everyone's fault except that of the respondent, the one and only individual who had control over what came out of her mouth. Furthermore, it imposes upon the trial court an unwarranted measure of blame.

At all times concerning the charges of misconduct respondent, an assistant district attorney, was not only an officer of the court but was the representative and the face of the Sovereign State of Oklahoma in prosecuting this case. According to Layton's profile, she served in this position for some eight (8) years. It is difficult to believe that, as an experienced prosecuting attorney, the chaos in the courthouse the day she encountered her witness was much different than any contested criminal proceeding in which she had participated. It is common knowledge that our County Courthouses are, for the most part, completely inadequate and provide little opportunity for "quiet conversations" with anyone. Most often, attorneys are forced to conduct such interviews in hushed tones and in crowded hallways filled with other parties and their attorneys attempting to do the same.

When directly asked by the trial judge if she had spoken to her witness, Antral Miller, prior to trial, she lied to the court in answering his question - "NO."!

In response to the charges brought against the respondent, she wants this court to believe that she was confused by the trial court's question; that she did not intend to mislead the court; and that her answer produced no harm and, therefore, no foul.

The record reflects that respondent had at least two other opportunities to proffer the correct and truthful answer (that she had, in fact, talked to Mr. Miller). Once during Mr. Miller's testimony at trial, and also during a meeting in the judge's chambers with and in the presence of the judge and opposing counsel. Yet, respondent continued to perpetuate her original lie to the court...

As a former prosecutor, criminal defense lawyer, and trial court judge, it has been and is my continuing opinion that the one unforgivable sin of any attorney/officer of the court is - "TO LIE TO THE COURT.".

The majority acknowledges that '[t]he record is clear that Layton was not clearly candid to the trial court that she spoke with Miller before his testimony, or what was discussed.' Nevertheless, it adopts the respondent's sugarcoated version of this transgression and the majority opinion signs off by dismissing the charges against her. Accordingly, I would impose costs against this respondent and further impose a lengthy period of suspension based upon the facts before us and for that reason I respectfully dissent.

(Mike Frisch)

http://lawprofessors.typepad.com/legal_profession/2014/03/the-oklahoma-supreme-court-in-its-words-exonerated-a-criminal-prosecutor-on-allegations-of-misconduct-during-the-course-of.html

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Comments

I have to agree with Judge Watt on this one. No discipline, not even a censure, for a repeated misrepresentation to a judge? This is the kind of case that puts teeth in the The Innocence Project's arguments.

Posted by: David Cameron Carr | Mar 27, 2014 6:15:22 AM

The court should be embarrassed. I agree with Judge Watt too. And people ask why there is so much prosecutorial misconduct?! Because judges are not willing to do much, if anything about it.

Posted by: Prof. Alberto Bernabe | Mar 30, 2014 6:17:41 PM

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