Disciplinary panel rules innocence advocate violated ethics rule
Posted January 14, 2016
Raleigh, N.C. — A disciplinary panel of the North Carolina State Bar unanimously ruled Thursday that a prominent advocate for inmates wrongly convicted of crimes committed an ethical violation in trying to free a man.
After a couple of hours of closed-door negotiations, State Bar officials agreed to admonish Christine Mumma for the violation. A written admonition is the lowest form of discipline the State Bar can levy.
"It's been over two years that I've been dealing with this, and I'm just glad its over," Mumma said. "I really just wanted it to be over. It's interfered with my life. It's interfered with my family's life. It's interfered with my work."
Mumma, the 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.
She 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. Andrus' brothers, who are now dead, were among those looked at for the crime.
Tests on the bottle later came back inconclusive. Sledge was exonerated based on other evidence.
Mumma testified during the four-day hearing 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.
Fred Morelock, a Raleigh attorney chairing the three-person disciplinary panel, said the combination of Mumma keeping the bottle once she realized it wasn't hers and then sending it for DNA testing amounted to "crossing the line" and was a violation of Andrus' privacy.
The panel dismissed claims that Mumma was dishonest or deceitful or acted in a way prejudicial to the administration of justice.
Defense attorney Jim Cooney argued Thursday that Mumma faced stiff opposition from Bladen County prosecutors, who were more concerned about public perception than actually freeing Sledge. He said authorities spent more time investigating Mumma and the water bottle than investigating Sledge's innocence.
"Ms. Mumma did what we expect an honorable attorney to do," Cooney told the three-person disciplinary panel in closing arguments. "When she had the evidence that convinced her an injustice had taken place, she took all necessary steps to correct it. ... That's being what we expect an honorable lawyer who complies with the rules of professional conduct to do."
State Bar officials insisted, however, that Mumma took an ends-justify-the-means approach and pushed the ethical envelope without seeking advice about her plans or actions.
"She knew what she was about to do was wrong," State Bar attorney Leanor Hodge said of Mumma's decision to keep the water bottle after she realized it wasn't hers.
Hodge said prosecutors never pressured Mumma to find another suspect in the Sledge case and that she went to Andrus' home on her own in search of DNA.
"If she chose to do it, she was required to do it within the rules of professional conduct," she said.
Sledge, one of several wrongly convicted inmates who attended the hearing throughout the week to support Mumma, said he thought the State Bar's pursuit of her was unnecessary.
"It's like they're taking it to another level, like she done robbed a bank or something," Sledge said. "If my heart could talk, it would tell you: Miss Mumma is outstanding in all her duties."
"Criminal defense lawyers, and specifically innocence lawyers, are under attack," defense attorney Joe Cheshire said, adding that Mumma's prosecution "made me very sad."
Mumma said she "tried to do the right thing" by pushing for Sledge's release.
"The fact that Joseph Sledge was in prison for something he didn't do was in my thoughts every day," she said. "I had the ability to fight (the State Bar), and I'm thankful for that, but it shouldn't be the way the system works."
Rick Glazier, director of the left-leaning North Carolina Justice Center and a former state lawmaker, said the case was a waste of resources, and more effort should be spent on freeing men like Sledge.
"That's where the resources should be spent, not on prosecuting a lawyer who was doing an extraordinary job to try to work for a man's freedom who was innocent and behind bars for a crime he didn't commit. This state needs more Chris Mummas, not less of them," Glazier said.