Indictments prove prosecutors wield great power with pen
Posted April 2, 2009
Smithfield, N.C. — Legal experts say prosecutors wield enormous power with a pen, noting a signature on the proper paperwork can end any criminal case.
"By the stroke of a pen, they have the authority to make a criminal charge of any kind, from a traffic offense to a capital murder case, go away," said Karl Knudsen, a defense attorney and former assistant district attorney in Wake County.
Cyndi Jaeger, a former assistant district attorney in Johnston County, was indicted Monday on three felony counts for obstruction of justice and two misdemeanor counts for failing to perform duty of office.
Jaeger signed 70 dismissal forms, which defense attorneys used after she left the Johnston County District Attorney's Office in September 2007 to illegally drop charges in drunken-driving and other traffic cases, according to the indictments.
Former court clerk Portia Snead and four defense attorneys – Chad Lee, Lee Hatch, Vann Sauls and Jack McLamb – also were indicted in the case.
District Attorney Susan Doyle asked the State Bureau of Investigation a year ago to look into the high rate of dismissed driving while impaired charges in the county. A WRAL investigation found that 46 percent of the driving while impaired charges filed in Johnston County in 2006 were dismissed, compared with 21 percent statewide and 20 percent in neighboring Wake County.
"The simple answer to how could this happen is that someone abused that power," Knudsen said.
DWI cases require two signed forms before they are dismissed, and dismissals are filed with the court clerk's office.
"Since apparently a number of these were done weeks or months after the assistant DA was no longer employed there, you kind of wonder why someone didn't pick up on it in the clerk's office," he said.
A 2006 state law requires specific information be listed on dismissal sheets in DWI cases, including the driver's alcohol concentration, any other pending impairment charges and an explanation for the dismissal, said Kimberly Overton, chief resource prosecutor for the North Carolina Conference of District Attorneys. A copy of the dismissal is supposed to be sent to the district attorney and the head of the law enforcement agency that brought the charge, she said.
State Rep. Leo Daughtry, R-Johnston, said he's not sure what more can be done to prevent such fraud from being perpetrated in state courts in the future.
"If there are any other ways to make sure our court system is protected, I would want to do that," he said.
Doyle said she's been asked by the state Attorney General's Office, which is handling the corruption case, not to comment on the status of the illegally dismissed cases.
The statute of limitations on those cases is two years, so it's possible some of them could be retried.
Knudsen said he is amazed by the scope of the alleged scheme and the number of people involved.
"I can't imagine someone was being paid enough to justify losing their entire career," he said.
Jaeger, who left her job as an assistant district attorney in Randolph County last Wednesday, faces 81 additional misdemeanor charges for failing to perform duty of office, which a grand jury is expected to take up on May 4.