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Murder defendant’s claim of ‘secret signal’ launches unusual ethics probe against DA

Posted Apr 24, 2014 1:50 PM CDT
By Martha Neil

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For 25 years, says Multnomah County District Attorney Rod Underhill, he has asked complaining witnesses in criminal cases whether they can identify the perpetrator, regardless of whether the answer to that question is yes or no.

But now the DA is facing an unusual legal ethics investigation, based on a murder defendant's claim that Underhill asked a witness to give him a "secret signal' answering that question, before Underhill asked it of her on the stand, reports the Oregonian.

Defendant Jerrin Lavazie Hickman, who was initially convicted of murder before an appeals court reversed last year on other grounds, contends Underhill devised the signal as a way to get around the rule that prosecutors must provide to the defense exculpatory evidence of which they are aware.

Underhill says he did nothing wrong and his lawyer criticized the Oregon State Bar for formally investigating a complaint that attorney Roy Pulvers describes as baseless.

“The complaint by Mr. Hickman is based entirely on a purely hypothetical set of facts that the record unequivocally establishes did not occur,” said Pulvers in a written response on Underhill’s behalf

A state court of appeals appears to give some credence to Hickman's claim in a 2013 written opinion (PDF) about Hickman's criminal case, the newspaper points out, although the opinion says, by happenstance, no secret signal was ever actually given.

Pulvers says Underhill did not ask the witness for a secret signal, period.

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