Panel admonishes innocence lawyer for ethics violation
RALEIGH, N.C. (AP) — An attorney known for her advocacy of the wrongly imprisoned was admonished Thursday by a disciplinary panel for taking a water bottle from someone without their permission and having it tested for DNA.
The North Carolina State Bar could have disbarred Chris Mumma for the ethical violation, but instead chose to admonish her, multiple media outlets reported.
Mumma, director of the North Carolina Center on Actual Innocence, was accused of having the bottle tested for DNA as she tried to prove the innocence of Joseph Sledge, who served almost 40 years for a double murder until he was proven innocent. He was released from prison a year ago.
State law describes an admonition as “a written form of discipline imposed in cases in which an attorney has committed a minor violation of the Rules of Professional Conduct.” It’s the lowest form of discipline that the State Bar levies.
The panel dismissed claims that Mumma was dishonest or deceitful or acted in a prejudicial way, according to the media reports. The panel chairman, Fred Morelock, said the phrase repeated in their deliberations was “crossing the line.”
The charges against Mumma date to 2013, when she and an employee of the innocence center went to the home of the sister of two brothers who had been suspects. Mumma couldn’t convince Marie Andrus to provide a DNA sample that could exclude her brothers as suspects, but picked up a water bottle and had it tested.
The bottle did not have DNA that was connected with the crime scene. Sledge was freed based on other evidence.
Defense attorney Jim Cooney said Thursday that prosecutors were more concerned about public perception than actually freeing Sledge. Authorities spent more time investigating Mumma and the water bottle than investigating Sledge’s innocence, he said.
“Ms. Mumma did what we expect an honorable attorney to do,” Cooney said in closing arguments. “When she had the evidence that convinced her an injustice had taken place, she took all necessary steps to correct it.”
State Bar officials argued that Mumma pushed the ethical envelope.
“She knew what she was about to do was wrong,” State Bar attorney Leanor Hodge said.