Chris Mumma, a North Carolina lawyer who has received many accolades as a champion for the falsely accused, now faces accusations from her peers.
The State Bar, the organization that oversees lawyers in state, contended in a complaint filed on Monday that the executive director of the North Carolina Center on Actual Innocence had violated one or more of the rules of professional conduct.
The accusations are related to her work on the Joseph Sledge case, which resulted this past January in an exoneration and freedom for a 70-year-old man who spent almost 40 years in prison for a double murder he did not commit.
In a five-page complaint, the State Bar takes issue with how Mumma, a North Carolina lawyer for 16 years and The News & Observer’s 2007 Tar Heel of the Year, had a water bottle tested for DNA evidence during her investigation into Sledge’s claims of innocence.
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Mumma declined on Tuesday to comment on the complaint.
Alan Schneider and Brad Bannon, Raleigh lawyers representing her, issued a joint statement on Tuesday.
“We are proud of Chris Mumma’s contributions to our state’s criminal justice system and honored to represent her in this matter,” the attorneys said, declining to comment further. “We look forward to working with the State Bar to resolve it on her behalf.”
At one point during her investigation, Mumma considered two brothers possible suspects in the 1976 stabbing deaths of Josephine and Aileen Davis, a mother and daughter who lived together in Bladen County.
Sledge had contacted the center that Mumma directed in January 2005, looking for assistance in his fight for freedom. He was convicted in 1978 of murdering the Davises and sentenced to life in prison. The center agreed to take the case and Mumma set out to test other theories of what might have happened to the Davises.
Along the way, she passed along information to the Innocence Inquiry Commission, a state agency established in August 2006 to investigate and evaluate post-conviction claims of actual innocence.
In May 2013, the commission accepted Sledge’s case and opened up its investigation.
Mumma continued her investigation independent of the commission, according to the bar complaint, and in October 2013 visited a family of men once considered suspects.
During that visit, Mumma tried to persuade the men’s family members to provide a DNA sample that could be tested against evidence in the Sledge case.
The family refused and accused Mumma of looking for “a scapegoat.”
Mumma denied that, according to the complaint, and told the family that DNA could help eliminate suspects, too.
Family denies permission
The family members said they would think about it, but did not give permission for testing at that point.
What happened next during that visit is at the center of the bar complaint, which lays out details in five pages:
Mumma left the family’s house with a water bottle that was not hers. Her own bottled water was still in her car.
“When Mumma realized she had a cool, half-empty water bottle that might yield a sample” of DNA for the family of the men once considered suspects, she “decided to keep the water bottle,” the bar complaint states.
“Mumma took steps to preserve the water bottle during the car ride until she could get back to her office and obtain more specific information about how to properly preserve any DNA that might be on the water bottle,” the complaint states.
When Mumma returned to her office later that day, she contacted a DNA testing lab with which she had worked before to find out more details.
The next day, Mumma heard that the family had decided against DNA testing.
Submitting water bottle
But that did not deter Mumma. She submitted the water bottle for testing.
Meanwhile, the N.C. Innocence Inquiry Commission was pursuing DNA testing through legal proceedings.
The commission has the power to obtain court orders for testing and did so. The DNA sample the commission obtained through the court order excluded the family and the men once considered suspects.
The commission built its case for innocence for Sledge on other claims, and a three-judge panel ruled in its favor in January.
Though Mumma also heard that DNA on the water bottle she obtained without permission did not match evidence recovered from the crime scene, she continued to pursue that theory.
Mumma called the family members to find out whether it was possible that others had been in the house during her visit or whether there might have been other reasons the DNA did not match.
Mumma never told the woman that she had taken the water bottle or had it tested against her wishes.
In so doing, according to the bar’s accusation, Mumma used “methods of obtaining evidence that violate the legal rights of a third person” in violation of professional conduct rules.
The bar complaint also alleges that Mumma “engaged in conduct involving dishonesty, fraud, deceit or misrepresentation,” also a violation of a professional conduct rule.
An earlier version of this story inaccurately reported that it was a North Carolina Center on Actual Innocence worker who told Chris Mumma about the family’s refusal to provide DNA to her and that Mumma subsequently withheld from the Center worker her plans to have a water bottle tested for DNA.