State Bar attorney: Innocence advocate violated woman's privacy
Posted January 11, 2016
Raleigh, N.C. — A prominent advocate for inmates wrongly convicted of crimes crossed an ethical line when she violated a woman's privacy rights to help one of her clients, an attorney for the North Carolina State Bar said Monday.
Christine Mumma, director of the North Carolina Center on Actual Innocence, faces a full week of hearings before a three-person disciplinary panel of the State Bar on whether she violated the rules of professional conduct in the case of Joseph Sledge.
Sledge 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's complaint 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, the suspect's sister, and later had it tested for DNA.
"This case is not about justice for Mr. Sledge," Leanor Hodge, an attorney for the State Bar, said Monday. "This case is about the defendant's misconduct."
Mumma has said that she didn't immediately realize the water bottle wasn't hers, but Hodge said that "she was steps away from the home" and could have returned the bottle instead of keeping it and having DNA tests conducted.
"To suggest that the defendant didn't know her conduct was wrong borders on the absurd," Hodge said.
Jim Cooney, a Charlotte lawyer representing Mumma, said she never intended to steal anything from Andrus' home and equated her actions to mistakenly taking someone else's pen after a meeting.
"No reasonable attorney would conclude that you committed a crime," Cooney said.
Hodge responded by comparing Mumma's actions to opening someone else's mail.
"She took the water bottle and sent it for testing because she wanted to see what was inside," she said.
Andrus testified during the hearing that she didn't even know the water bottle was gone until state authorities contacted her about it. She said she remains very protective of her brothers even though they are dead, but she has forgiven Mumma and doesn't believe her intentions were wrong.
"I realized the fact that Miss Mumma wasn't really trying to do anything to hurt me or my family. She was actually doing a great service," Andrus said. "I don't know anyone who is human who hasn't made some kind of mistake. The good outweighs the bad."
Cooney also disputed Hodge's assertion that Sledge's innocence was completely separate from the case against Mumma.
"Without this DNA, Ms. Mumma could not have successfully attempted to free him," Cooney said. "She did what we expect a zealous and an effective advocate to do."
Mumma has noted that she was the one to inform both the North Carolina Innocence Inquiry Commission and the local district attorney about her possession of the water bottle and the test – a move that ultimately resulted in the State Bar complaint against her.
The disciplinary panel will hear testimony for and against Mumma through the course of the week on three rules violations: that she used methods of evidence to violate the legal rights of a third party; that she acted in a way that was dishonest or deceitful; and that she acted in a way that violated the administration of justice.
Sledge and several other wrongly convicted men Mumma helped exonerate – Greg Taylor, Dwayne Dail, Larry Lamb and Willie Grimes – were at the hearing Monday. The five men spent more than 120 years combined behind bars for crimes they didn't commit.
"Chris is awesome. She's a lady of integrity," said Lamb, who spent more than 20 years in prison for a Bladen County murder before being cleared in 2013.
Dail, who served 18 years in prison for a 1987 rape before being released in 2007, said he and others believe the charges against her are bogus.
"Chris Mumma has had a target on her back since she started this work," Dail said. "Out of all of the years that Sledge was in prison wrongfully, Chris Mumma is the only one being held in any kind of way responsible. and I just think that's ridiculous."
"She's worked very hard for reform and very hard for exonerations, and along the way, I believe, certain people might be resenting that, and that's why we're all here today," said Taylor, who spent 17 years in prison for a Raleigh murder before becoming the first person exonerated by the Innocence Inquiry Commission and a three-judge panel in 2010.
"They may be trying to stop her from doing what she does, a job that she loves doing," Lamb said.
The disciplinary panel is expected to decide on Mumma's fate by Friday. If the State Bar finds Mumma violated its rules, it can issue discipline up to disbarment.