Colleen Janssen, the former Wake County prosecutor facing possible sanctions against her law license, described to the court on Thursday several harrowing weeks in April 2014 after her father was kidnapped in a scheme organized by a prison inmate she had prosecuted.
On occasion, Janssen’s voice wavered with emotion as she recalled finding out from her mother that her father was missing and the texts that followed from the kidnappers about why.
Frank Janssen, Colleen’s father, was kidnapped from his Wake Forest home on a Saturday in April 2014.
Though the accused in that case have all been prosecuted and the case was not the key reason for Colleen Janssen’s return to the Wake County courthouse on Thursday, it was a backdrop to the misconduct allegations that could play a role in the former prosecutor’s ability to practice law.
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Janssen is accused of withholding key information from defense attorneys in a drug-related robbery trial that she prosecuted in October 2014, six months after her father’s kidnapping.
On the day he was kidnapped, Colleen Janssen told the court, she had been to her office in the Wake County District Attorney’s office that morning, then gone to a cookout and for a walk with a friend in which she made the conscious decision to leave her phone at home.
She returned that afternoon to find numerous missed calls from her mother. When she call her mother back, Janssen learned that no one knew where her father was.
She said she went to her parents’ home in Wake Forest. There the women found a few things out of place, a McDonald’s receipt and blood droplets that aroused their concerns.
But it was not until her mother came to her in the middle of the night with her phone showing a series of texts that Janssen learned what a precarious position her father was in, as well as the reason he had been targeted.
Kelvin Melton, a state inmate she had prosecuted who was serving a life sentence in state prison, had used contraband cell phones from inside prison to orchestrate with gang members outside prison to remove Janssen from his home and transport him to Atlanta on the floor of a car to an apartment where he was tied to a chair. His captors had repeatedly shocked him with a stun gun during the drive south and tied his limbs so tightly that blood clots and extensive scarring formed.
The incident sparked fear in the Wake County courthouse and left Colleen Janssen in an apprehensive and stressed state for many months, according to testimony.
Though Janssen’s testimony about her father and her family’s actions during and after the kidnapping caused her voice to shake with emotion, it was while responding to questions about her misconduct that tears flowed.
Janssen has acknowledged making mistakes that conflict with the professional code of ethics governing lawyers in North Carolina.
She resigned from the Wake County District Attorneys in July 2016 – after working there 11 years – when the behavior became public in a state Court of Appeals ruling.
Janssen told Wake County Superior Court Judge Donald Stephens, who has presided over the disciplinary hearing, that while she knows now she made mistakes, none of them had been done intentionally or with the goal of denying the defendants in her case a fair trial.
Janssen said on Thursday that with hindsight, she realizes that her father’s kidnapping, and the stress and attention deficit that resulted from it, meant she was not as sharp as she should have been.
She said she failed to recognize the complexity of some of the issues in the case that caused her problems. Her victim was a drug dealer and federal prosecutors had talked with her about him being under investigation, details she did not share with the defense attorneys.
“I believe that any number of people were impacted by the mistakes that I made in this case,” Janssen told Stephens as tears welled in her eyes. “...The criminal justice system that I believe in suffered, and that breaks my heart every day.”
The disciplinary hearing is set to continue on Friday. Stephens told the attorneys arguing for the state Bar that he did not plan to make a quick ruling in the case.
“I don’t know where I am right now,” Stephens said. “I’m not in any hurry to make an ill-advised decision.”