Experts: Innocence advocate's actions 'reasonable,' not ethics violation
Posted January 13, 2016
Raleigh, N.C. — Two veteran attorneys on Wednesday called the actions of a prominent advocate for inmates wrongly convicted of crimes "reasonable" and not ethical violations.
A disciplinary panel of the North Carolina State Bar is trying to determine if Christine Mumma, director of the North Carolina Center on Actual Innocence, violated the rules of professional conduct in the case of Joseph Sledge, who served almost 40 years for a double murder he didn't commit before he was exonerated and released from prison last January.
The State Bar alleges that Mumma was seeking a DNA sample from the family of a possible suspect in the Sledge case when, in October 2013, she took a water bottle from the home of Marie Andrus and later had it tested for DNA without Andrus' permission.
Mumma testified Tuesday that she mistakenly grabbed the water bottle when leaving Andrus' home, but she decided to have it tested after Andrus repeatedly refused to provide a DNA sample to compare against evidence in the case.
On Wednesday, Mumma testified that Andrus' brothers were among scores of possible suspects in the case, and she didn't care if the DNA test implicated them or cleared them. She said she was only trying to narrow the field of possible suspects in order to clear Sledge.
Tests on the bottle later came back inconclusive. Sledge was exonerated based on other evidence.
Jerry Parnell, who has served on state and national legal ethics panels, and Lane Williamson, a former member of the State Bar's Disciplinary Hearing Commission, both testified Wednesday that Mumma had to balance Andrus' right to privacy against Sledge's right to clear his name.
"It was clear he was an innocent man," Williamson said, adding that in balancing the rights, "the scale hits the ground" in favor of Sledge.
"She has a duty to Miss Andrus, but she has a greater duty to an innocent man she has represented for 10 years," he said.
Parnell said Mumma made "a reasonable conclusion" that her actions were warranted and didn't amount to an ethical violation.
"You have to balance the real possibility that Mr. Sledge could have been in prison for the rest of his life against analyzing the shed DNA of Miss Andrus," he said.
Mumma said she was facing legal deadlines to push for Sledge's release, and she felt pressured by Bladen County District Attorney Jon David to come up with a new suspect before he would take another look at the case.
David and his top assistant prosecutor angrily disputed the notion that the onus was on Mumma to crack the case.
"I would never impose on a defendant that he find the perpetrator. I find that very suggestion offensive," David testified Wednesday.
The court system is "set up to show guilt, not to prove innocence," he said, so he had to take deliberate steps in handling Sledge's case.
"I was very concerned of the public's perception that we had an innocent man languishing in prison, and we were doing everything in our power to get him out," he said. "She was asking me instead to stand in a back room and wave a magic wand and make that happen, and I thought that was wildly inappropriate."
The disciplinary panel is weighing three allegations against Mumma – she violated the legal rights of a third party, acted in a way that was dishonest or deceitful and acted in a way that violated the administration of justice – and could begin its deliberations on Thursday. If the members determine that Mumma violated State Bar rules, they can issue discipline ranging from a reprimand up to disbarment.