Legal Ethics

Did DA and defense lawyer use 'undeniably invalid order' to commit schizophrenic man?

Apparently agreeing with a retired Oregon judge’s complaint that a sitting district attorney and a defense lawyer used an “undeniably invalid order” when committing a mentally ill man to the state hospital for treatment, bar authorities have filed a legal ethics complaint.

Describing the issue a little differently than retired Lane County Judge Jim Hargreaves, the state bar contends in its complaint against Washington County District Attorney Bob Hermann and defense attorney Robert Axford that “there was no nonfrivolous basis under the law for such an order, and the accused knew there was no such basis,” the Oregonian reports.

The subject of the order, Donn Thomas Spinosa, who has twice been indicted but never convicted in the 1997 stabbing death of his wife, was subsequently civilly committed using appropriate legal process. However, the “mental illness magistrate hold” initially used to put him at the state hospital in October 2011 does not legally exist, according to the newspaper.

Hermann and Axford now face ethics charges including conduct prejudicial to the administration of justice.

In an email to the newspaper, Hermann said: “We are glad to learn the specific allegations. We will be requesting a hearing as soon as practicable and most certainly look forward to the opportunity to respond and refute these claims.” He has previously said (PDF) the order was based on a cutting-edge interpretation of how state law might be applied, as a 2011 article in the Oregonian reported.

Axford did not respond to a request for comment from the newspaper, but has previously defended his position in response to the complaint (PDF) by Hargreaves. Those who contended that he acted improperly to restrict his client’s liberty interest, he said, might wish to consider how important it was to protect Spinosa from potential indictment in a capital murder case.

The retired judge learned of the at-issue order from an article in the newspaper.

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