Through tears, ex-Wake prosecutor admits mistakes, denies wrongdoing
Posted March 9, 2017 6:06 p.m. EST
Updated July 13, 2018 1:39 p.m. EDT
Raleigh, N.C. — In more than three hours of sometimes tearful testimony Thursday a former Wake County prosecutor insisted she did nothing wrong when she withheld evidence from defense attorneys in a 2014 robbery trial.
Colleen Janssen, who resigned as assistant district attorney last July amid questions about her actions in the case, now faces possible sanctions for violating the code of professional conduct for attorneys.
"I know I've made mistakes in this case, but I did not do any of it intentionally," Janssen testified in her defense.
Her alleged misconduct stems from her conviction in October 2014 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.
Paul Green, the attorney who handled Sandy's appeal, testified Thursday that he uncovered evidence that Raleigh police were investigating Smith for marijuana trafficking before Sandy's and Surpris' trial and that Janssen had discussed the investigation with police, going so far as to ask 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.
"If she did not have knowledge (of the investigation), it was by design," Green said. "I find most disturbing the cooperation between the district attorney's office and the police in hiding things from the defense."
Janssen testified that she simply wanted to keep Smith from getting spooked, noting that he was reluctant to trust her or the court system and was skittish about testifying against Sandy and Surpris.
"I worried that all of the work I'd done to get him to trust me was just going to go down the tubes if he was charged," she said.
She flatly denied Cameron's claim that she had cut him off when he tried to give her details of the investigation. She also insisted that her efforts to keep evidence linking Smith to drugs out of the robbery trial was because the defense attorneys "were trying to get in evidence in inappropriate ways."
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.
Janssen acknowledged Thursday that Smith's denial on the witness stand of any involvement with drugs "should have clicked with me" as not jibing with the ongoing investigation, but she still didn't think she was required to provide that information to the defense attorneys.
Yet, she apologized to Sandy and Surpris on the stand Thursday.
"The defendants in this case, they were entitled for me to do my job correctly, and I didn't do that," she said.
Superior Court Judge Donald Stephens asked her why she didn't recognize an obligation to turn over evidence to the defense that might have cleared Sandy and Surpris, and Janssen cited her emotional state in the wake of her father's kidnapping six months before the trial.
"I was simply not as sharp and as quick as I usually am, not for months," she said.
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.
Colleen Janssen recalled the trauma the kidnapping caused her, her family and the people who work at the Wake County Courthouse.
When she realized Melton was behind the abduction, she said she thought, "Not only was this bad, but this was because of me. This was my fault."
Frank Janssen spent two weeks recovering in hospitals and still bears scars and nerve damage in his hands and feet from the torture he endured, she said.
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.
When she finally returned to work, her supervisors cut her caseload in half and offered to move her out of prosecutions entirely, but she said she loved the work too much.
"Walking away from that work would be letting the bad guys win, and I didn't want to do that," she said.
Now that she's lost that job, she said she's heartbroken.
"The criminal justice system I believed in and worked so very hard to convince others that they should believe in suffered because of my actions, and that breaks my heart every day," she said. "Outside of my family, I lost my entire world."