Wake prosecutor targeted in kidnapping case suspended
Posted June 29, 2016 11:57 a.m. EDT
Updated June 29, 2016 1:15 p.m. EDT
Raleigh, N.C. — A Wake County prosecutor who was targeted for abduction by a gang leader she put behind bars for life was suspended this week after an appeals court ruled that she withheld evidence in a 2014 case.
Wake County District Attorney Lorrin Freeman placed Assistant District Attorney Colleen Janssen on paid leave Monday and plans to meet with her this week.
"It’s something that I feel like is important the public knows we’re going to take hard look at this. I’m committed to operating an office that is beyond reproach, and we are committed to trying to make sure we are doing that," Freeman said Wednesday.
"She has cooperated. She is cooperating and will continue to cooperate with every aspect of the investigation," said Janssen's attorney, Rick Gammon.
Last week, the state Court of Appeals overturned the armed robbery convictions of Barshiri Sandy and Henry Surpris, ruling that Janssen had violated the men's constitutional rights to a fair trial.
Both men confronted Marcus Smith in his garage in April 2013 and exchanged gunfire with Smith before fleeing the scene, according to court records. Smith testified at trial that Sandy and Surpris robbed him of $1,153 in cash and a ring, while the two defendants testified 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 that they were merely trying to settle a debt with Smith and had no intention of robbing him, according to court records.
But Janssen had used a personal email account several times before the trial to communicate with a Raleigh police investigator about a raid on a drug house linked to Smith, and she never provided information about those exchanges to Sandy's and Surpris' defense attorneys, according to court records.
The e-mails came to light during a subsequent federal prosecution of Smith on drug trafficking charges.
"We hold that these violations were prejudicial in nature," Judge Chris Dillon wrote in the unanimous appeals court decision throwing out Sandy's and Surpris' convictions. "Defendants’ version of the shooting was based on their contention that they were in Mr. Smith’s garage to settle accounts with Mr. Smith, not to rob him. Their self-serving testimony, however, was the only evidence that Mr. Smith was, in fact, a drug trafficker. Further, the State’s key evidence was Mr. Smith’s testimony. Evidence which would tend to show that at least part of his testimony was false could have made a difference in the outcome."
Freeman said she is reviewing the case and will decide sometime next week whether any discipline is warranted. None of Janssen's other cases are currently under review, she said.
"Any time the Court of Appeals makes a determination that somebody in a DA’s office has violated a defendant’s rights, the public has a right to feel confident that that matter is going to looked at and be handled," she said.
There is no criminal investigation of Janssen's actions, but the North Carolina State Bar could pursue some disciplinary action, she said.
Freeman defended Janssen's use of personal email as she worked on cases from home and praised the prosecutor's 10-year record.
"Colleen has repeatedly been a lead prosecutor in some of the most serious cases involving armed robbery, members of some of our gangs here in our community. She’s been a hard-hitting prosecutor," Freeman said. "We have to all exercise our judgment and discretion every day. I‘m not convinced this was a nefarious or an ill intent. Sometimes that doesn’t matter, though, and what matters is, can the confidence be restored in what we are doing internally as we move forward?"
The Court of Appeals ruling was issued the same day that a federal court jury convicted Kevin Melton of masterminding the kidnapping of Janssen's father two years ago.
Authorities said Melton used a cellphone smuggled into a state prison to order members of the Bloods street gang to kidnap Janssen, who had prosecuted him in 2012, but the crew went to the wrong address and grabbed her father instead.
The FBI monitored the 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.
Freeman said the review of Colleen Janssen's work has no bearing on the Melton case.