Judge puzzled by former Wake prosecutor's missteps
Posted March 10
Raleigh, N.C. — After a parade of police detectives, current and former judges and two former district attorneys testified on behalf of a former Wake County prosecutor during a disciplinary hearing this week, Superior Court Judge Donald Stephens remained perplexed as to why she withheld evidence from defense attorneys in a 2014 robbery trial.
"I'm trying to figure out how we got here," Stephens said Friday. "I don't know how this case got tried without the light coming on."
Colleen Janssen, who resigned as assistant district attorney last July, faces possible sanctions for violating the code of professional conduct for attorneys.
She has insisted she never intended to cause any harm but admits she made mistakes in her October 2014 prosecution of Barshiri Sandy and Henry Surpris, who were charged with robbing Marcus Smith 18 months earlier.
Sandy and Surpris confronted Smith in his garage and exchanged gunfire with him before fleeing the scene, according to court records. Smith testified at trial that the two men robbed him of $1,153 in cash and a ring, while the defense argued that Smith was a drug dealer who hadn't delivered some marijuana they had bought.
Smith denied any involvement with drugs, and Janssen repeatedly said during testimony and in her closing argument that there was no evidence to back up Sandy's and Surpris' claims.
Only during Sandy's appeal of his conviction did the defense learn that Raleigh police had been investigating Smith for marijuana trafficking and that Janssen had asked the lead detective not to charge Smith until after her trial was over.
Raleigh police Sgt. James Battle and Assistant U.S. Attorney Lawrence Cameron both confirmed in testimony Wednesday that Janssen had asked them to hold off on any state or federal drug charges against Smith. Cameron also noted that she didn't want to know any details of the investigation, a charge Janssen flatly denies.
Janssen testified Thursday that her actions were simply to keep Smith from getting spooked – she said he was reluctant to trust her or the court system and was skittish about testifying against Sandy and Surpris – and not to have the credibility of her main witness dented.
On Friday, she admitted she should have corrected his testimony about not being involved with drugs, although she had no proof of that because she never asked police about a their search of a "stash house" connected to Smith.
"I do not believe I misled that jury," she said. "That was absolutely not my intention."
"Do you believe it [not disclosing Smith's drug links] gave you an advantage as a prosecutor?" Stephens asked.
"Yes, sir," she responded, adding later that she failed to realize the scope of the police investigation and its ties to her case.
"I really didn't care about the investigation because I didn't think it had anything to do with the case," she said. "It's not that I didn't want to turn anything over (to the defense). I just didn't think one had anything to do with the other."
The North Carolina Court of Appeals ruled last June that Janssen violated the defendants' right to a fair trial by not informing their attorneys of the pending case against Smith. The judges overturned the men's convictions, and Wake County District Attorney Lorrin Freeman then dropped the charges against them.
Stephens, who plans to rule on any sanctions on March 20, said it appears Janssen got "tunnel vision" over her case and "lost her professional compass."
Close to a dozen former colleagues called Janssen an honest and dedicated prosecutor.
"God forbid anything ever happen to my family, but she's the kind of district attorney I would want to handle my case," said Paul Gessner, a former prosecutor and judge who now works for the Wake County Sheriff's Office.
But most witnesses said Janssen was shaken more than she'd ever admit by her father's kidnapping three years ago.
Kelvin Melton, whom Janssen had prosecuted in 2012, used a cellphone smuggled into a state prison to order members of the Bloods street gang to kidnap her in April 2014, but the crew went to the wrong address and grabbed her father instead. The FBI then monitored phone conversations between Melton and his subordinates to pinpoint Frank Janssen's location and rescued him from an Atlanta apartment five days after he was taken from his Wake Forest home.
Melton is serving a life sentence in a federal super-max prison in Colorado, and several of his associates have been sentenced to 20 to 50 years in prison for their roles in the abduction.
"I struggle to understand it," longtime Wake County District Attorney Colon Willoughby said of Janssen's actions.
Willoughby, who hired Janssen more than a decade ago, wiped tears from his eyes as he talked about her work and the kidnapping.
"She, like everyone in the office, felt a strong responsibility to do the right thing," he said. "I can't imagine her doing something that would damage the office."
Attorney Joe Zeszotarski, who represented Janssen in the hearing, said she clearly "was not the Colleen Janssen she was before April 2014" and that her mistakes came from negligence and not an intent to deceive anyone.
"There's nothing in this lawyer's history to indicate she would cut corners," Zeszotarski said in his closing argument.
Katherine Jean, chief counsel for the North Carolina State Bar, countered that Janssen's actions were littered with deceit, and maintaining the integrity of the court system requires that she be punished.
"It's a serious thing when the public fears they won't get treated fairly by the court system," Jean said.