Tuesday, August 08, 2006

Gansler Gets Censured by High Court

Washington Post, November 13, 2003

High Court Censures Gansler; Punishment Is First for a Sitting State Prosecutor in Md.

By Fredrick Kunkle
Washington Post Staff Writer

Maryland's high court reprimanded Montgomery County State's Attorney Douglas F. Gansler yesterday for violating a professional rule of conduct against making out-of-court statements before trial, marking the first time that a sitting prosecutor in Maryland has been publicly censured, the court said.

The Court of Appeals unanimously ruled that Gansler (D) improperly discussed evidence, such as a defendant's confession, at news conferences "on more than one occasion" involving three criminal cases.

In effect, the court held that a prosecutor's right to address the public about high-profile crimes was outweighed by a defendant's right to a fair trial before jurors who have heard only testimony and argument in a courtroom.

Gansler, who has served as state's attorney since January 1999, said he does not believe he did anything wrong.

"No one really believes that a publicly elected official cannot publicly state that which is public -- but that's what the opinion is saying," Gansler said. "My view is that I have a legal, moral and ethical obligation to inform the public about what's going on in the criminal justice system."

Gansler's attorney, Carmen M. Shepard, called Gansler's punishment "extreme" and predicted that the opinion would inhibit prosecutors from saying anything about their cases outside the courtroom or beyond the exact text of court pleadings. Lawyers involved in the case said they know of no other instance in the nation in which a prosecutor was formally sanctioned for commenting publicly about pending cases.

In a 48-page opinion filed yesterday, the court found that Gansler made improper public comments about suspects in the killings of jogger Sue Wen Stottmeister in January 2001 and Monsignor Thomas Wells in June 2000. The court also held that Gansler should not have publicly discussed a possible plea bargain for James Edward Perry. Those remarks were made after the high court reversed Perry's conviction in the contract killings of his 8-year-old paraplegic son, the boy's mother and a nurse.

The court rejected allegations filed by the Attorney Grievance Commission that Gansler had committed professional misconduct in two other cases.

The last time a sitting state's attorney received any sort of censure was a private reprimand "a substantial number of years ago," said Melvin Hirshman, bar counsel for the Attorney Grievance Commission.

"Today's decision demonstrates that if [a prosecutor's] power is abused in the press, the court will not hesitate to take action," said Larry Nathans, immediate past president of the Maryland Criminal Defense Attorneys' Association.

"I think the defense bar will be pleased that those few prosecutors who violate the rules of ethics would get the message."

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