Local News

Focused on freeing inmate, innocence advocate says she made mistake

Posted January 12, 2016 11:02 a.m. EST
Updated January 12, 2016 6:24 p.m. EST

— A prominent advocate for inmates wrongly convicted of crimes testified in her own defense Tuesday in a North Carolina State Bar disciplinary hearing.

A three-person disciplinary panel 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, the sister of the possible suspect, without consent and later had it tested for DNA.

She is also accused of being deceptive about a hearing transcript that was leaked to the media.

Her attorneys have said she did nothing wrong and was simply seeking justice for Sledge.

Mumma said that she knew Sledge was innocent because hairs at the crime scene didn't match his, but she felt that wasn't enough evidence for Bladen County District Attorney Jon David to take another look at the case. He wanted a new suspect, she said, and she felt pressure to make that happen.

So, she tried to get DNA to match evidence from the case, but Andrus refused to provide a sample for comparison, saying she didn't wanted her brothers framed for the crime as Sledge had been. Mumma said that she took the bottle from Andrus' home by mistake, but when she realized the bottle wasn't hers, she couldn't get past the possibility that it might be the key to Sledge's release.

"I thought about the potential the bottle might have for Joseph," she testified. "I was continually asking for DNA to get Joseph home."

Tests on the bottle later came back inconclusive. Sledge was exonerated based on other evidence.

Mumma later sent an email to the state Innocence Inquiry Commission to let them know what she had done. The commission and David said they would report her actions to the State Bar if she didn't, but she eventually notified the State Bar.

"I did say, 'What's the worst they could do to me? Petty larceny?'" she testified.

Attorneys for the State Bar plan to cross-examine Mumma on Wednesday.

Live coverage of hearing allowed

Separately Tuesday, Capitol Broadcasting Co., the parent company of WRAL-TV and WRAL.com, prevailed in its efforts to stream Mumma's hearing online.

Fred Morelock, a Raleigh attorney who is chairing the disciplinary panel, had denied requests to allow a video camera in the hearing room, prompting Capitol to file a lawsuit Monday against the State Bar's Disciplinary Hearing Commission.

Capitol argued that the hearing falls under state open meetings laws because the State Bar is a regulatory agency. Morelock cited state law giving judges the discretion of allowing video cameras in a courtroom in denying the request for coverage.

The State Bar commission relented Tuesday morning before a court hearing on the lawsuit.

Mumma's work has helped free several people who spent years in prison for crimes they didn't commit, and she has many supporters at the hearing, including Sledge.

"Sour grapes, it appears to me," said Ed Timberlake, the father-in-law of Greg Taylor, who was exonerated of a Raleigh murder in 2010 after he served 17 years behind bars. "I think the system will work itself out and she will be exonerated, just as she did for the people that she's defended."

The disciplinary panel refused to dismiss any of the 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 – after the State Bar rested its case Tuesday.

The panel is expected to decide on her fate this week. If the members determine that Mumma violated State Bar rules, they can issue discipline ranging from a reprimand up to disbarment.