Legal Ethics

Surreptitious collection of DNA from water bottle lands lawyer for exonerated inmate in hot water

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An ethics complaint accuses the executive director of the North Carolina Center on Actual Innocence of trying to exonerate a client by surreptitiously collecting DNA from a water bottle.

The lawyer, Chris Mumma, “has received many accolades as a champion for the falsely accused,” the News & Observer reports. But her work on behalf of Joseph Sledge, exonerated in a double murder after spending nearly 40 years in prison, has drawn an ethics complaint by the North Carolina State Bar.

The Legal Profession Blog has highlights from the complaint (PDF) in a post deeming the charges part of a “war on criminal defense counsel.” WRAL also has stories here and here.

DNA testing was not available when Sledge was convicted in 1978. In 2003, Sledge obtained an order to search for DNA evidence from the crime scene, and in 2005, Sledge contacted Mumma’s group for assistance.

Mumma hoped to link DNA from the crime scene to the real killers, and she considered two brothers to be suspects, according to the ethics complaint. Mumma visited the home of the possible suspects’ sister, and asked her for a DNA sample, believing the sister’s DNA could link the brothers to the crime. The sister refused.

When Mumma left the home, she took a half-empty water bottle from the residence, realizing it might not be her own, according to the ethics complaint. When she got to her car, Mumma confirmed she had left her own water bottle in the car. She decided to keep the water bottle from the home, and eventually submitted it for DNA testing, the complaint says. DNA from the bottle did not link the brothers to the crime.

The North Carolina Innocence Inquiry Commission was investigating the case at Mumma’s request, and obtained DNA from a brother of the possible suspects by obtaining a non-testimonial order. The DNA did not link the brothers to the crime scene.

The ethics complaint claims Mumma’s DNA collection violated the legal rights of a third person; involved dishonesty, fraud, deceit or misrepresentation; and was prejudicial to the administration of justice.

Former North Carolina Supreme Court Justice Bob Orr spoke on Mumma’s behalf in an interview with WRAL. “A DNA sample taken from that water bottle would seem to me very inconsequential in the greater context of the work that people across the state are doing,” Orr said. “Anyone who knows Chris and the work she’s done with the Innocence Commission know she’s a person of great integrity.”

Writing at the Legal Profession Blog, Georgetown Law Center ethics counsel Michael Frisch questions the ethics complaint, which follows recent ethics charges against two North Carolina death penalty lawyers accused of providing inaccurate information to courts based on their interviews with two black men excluded from a jury panel. The Charlotte Observer has a story here; the Legal Profession Blog covered the death-penalty lawyers’ answers to the ethics complaints here, saying they demonstrate the mistakes were minor and the judge found them to be immaterial.

“The North Carolina State Bar’s war on criminal defense counsel continues,” Frisch writes in the post about the Mumma allegations. “What is going on in North Carolina?”

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