Local News

Lawyer accused of misconduct defends actions to represent wrongfully convicted man

Posted June 16, 2015 4:11 p.m. EDT
Updated June 16, 2015 7:46 p.m. EDT

— A lawyer known for clearing men wrongly accused of murder said Tuesday that she didn't violate professional ethics when working on a case, insisting that her actions were done solely in her client's interest.

The North Carolina State Bar last month filed a complaint against Christine Mumma, the executive director of the North Carolina Center on Actual Innocence, alleging that she unethically obtained a DNA sample while investigating the case of Joseph Sledge.

Sledge, 70, spent nearly 40 years behind bars for the 1976 stabbing deaths of Josephine Davis, 74, and Ailene Davis, 53, in their Elizabethtown home. He was cleared of the killings in January after newly discovered evidence cast doubt on his involvement.

The State Bar's complaint alleges that, in October 2013, Mumma visited the home of a woman whose brothers were considered possible suspects in the killings to obtain a DNA sample. Mumma believed the sample would strengthen Sledge’s claims of innocence, the complaint said.

The woman declined to provide a sample, but Mumma left the home with a half-empty water bottle that she knew may not have belonged to her, according to the complaint. After the family decided not to provide a DNA sample, Mumma had the water bottle tested, the complaint said.

In her answer to the complaint, Mumma said she didn't know the water bottle wasn't hers until she returned to her car after speaking to the woman and found she had left her water bottle there.

"When she realized, at the car, that the bottle was not hers, she began to think about the implications of having evidence that could support her client's claim of actual innocence, and she believed she had a duty to her client to consider the options," Mumma stated in her answer.

State authorities hadn't collected any DNA from other possible suspects in the case and were pressing for a hearing that could end Sledge's bid to have his conviction overturned. Mumma contends in her answer that, even though the family refused to provide a DNA sample, she hoped that testing the water bottle could lead to a court order for a sample or could exclude the brothers as suspects, which she said would be important to the investigation.

The North Carolina Innocence Inquiry Commission obtained a court order for a DNA sample a year later, after Mumma's test already eliminated the brothers as suspects in the case.

Mumma also argues in the answer that she informed both the Innocence Commission and the local district attorney about her possession of the water bottle and having it tested – a move that ultimately resulted in the State Bar complaint against her.

"(Mumma's) voluntary and open disclosure led to these charges and belies any claim that (she) acted either in secrecy or with an attempt to deceive," the answer states.

The response contends that Mumma's actions were necessary to clear the name of an innocent man and maintain public confidence in the justice system.

"Without Ms. Mumma's zealous representation, Joseph Sledge would still be in prison," it states. "These charges seek to publicly sanction her over a minor part of her decade-long effort to achieve justice and restore confidence in the criminal justice system in Mr. Sledge's case."

The State Bar had scheduled an Aug. 7 hearing before its disciplinary board, but that has been canceled. A new date for the hearing hasn't been set.