Appellate Practice

Judge Warns Defense Lawyers in Pitino Extortion Case: Don’t Crib Law Discussion from Wikipedia

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A federal judge has issued a legal writing warning to lawyers who sought a new trial for a woman convicted of trying to extort money from University of Louisville basketball coach Rick Pitino.

The defense should not have copied its discussion of ineffective assistance from Wikipedia, U.S. District Judge Charles Simpson of Louisville wrote in a February opinion (PDF). His concerns are outlined in footnote 4 of his opinion denying a new trial for the defendant, Karen Sypher, Legal Blog Watch reports.

“The court notes here that defense counsel appears to have cobbled much of his statement of the law governing ineffective assistance of counsel claims by cutting and pasting, without citation, from the Wikipedia website,” Simpson wrote.

“The court reminds counsel that such cutting and pasting, without attribution, is plagiarism. The court also brings to counsel’s attention Rule 8.4 of the Kentucky Rules of Professional Conduct, which states that it is professional misconduct for an attorney to ‘engage in conduct involving dishonesty, fraud, deceit or misrepresentation.’ …

“Finally, the court reminds counsel that Wikipedia is not an acceptable source of legal authority in the United States District Courts.”

Sypher reported to federal prison Wednesday to begin serving an 87-month sentence, reports. On Tuesday, a federal appeals court refused to postpone Sypher’s prison sentence while her appeals are resolved, according to the Louisville Courier-Journal.

Legal Blog Watch credits Legal Writing Prof Blog for noting the footnote.

Alexandria, Va., lawyer David Nolan filed the motion discussing ineffective assistance, according to Pacer documents. A phone number listed on court documents was apparently forwarded to the voice mail for a private number. He did not immediately respond to a phone message and an email.

Nolan later told the ABA Journal in a phone message that the Wikipedia entry was based on a brief written by his investigator, Jim Faller of Russell Springs, Ky.

Faller tells the ABA Journal he’s not a lawyer, but judges and lawyers often hire him for investigative work, especially in cases involving public corruption. The Wikipedia entry cited by Simpson, Faller says, was based on a brief he wrote for a nonlawyer magistrate in South Carolina who was a trustee for the will of soul singer James Brown. Faller says he advised the magistrate judge about his rights to a lawyer after another judge attacked the magistrate’s work.

The magistrate was so impressed he posted the brief online, Faller says. “Wikipedia got that from us, it’s our product,” Faller tells the ABA Journal.

Updated at 9:10 a.m. to add information about the lawyer. Updated on April 20 to include information from Nolan’s investigator, Jim Faller.

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