Judge Donald Stephens posed numerous questions during the three-day disciplinary hearing for a former Wake County prosecutor accused of withholding crucial information from defense attorneys in a drug-related robbery trial.
The chief resident Superior Court judge was trying to weigh conflicting narratives about what information Colleen Janssen, the former prosecutor, had in 2014 about her key witness and victim in the robbery trial that has her facing possible sanctions against her law license.
Among the allegations are that Janssen asked Raleigh police and federal prosecutors to hold off on criminal cases against her witness, a man suspected of being a drug dealer, until after her trial. She did not disclose the possible investigations to defense attorneys representing the men accused of robbing her victim.
Janssen, who came to the Wake D.A.’s office as an intern under former Wake County District Attorney Colon Willoughby, acknowledged this week that she made mistakes. But she added that it was not with the intention of getting an upperhand on the defense attorneys arguing against her.
Janssen said with hindsight she realized she had not fully recovered from the traumatic stress she experienced after a prison inmate she had prosecuted organized a multi-state kidnapping that resulted in her father being abducted from his Wake Forest home, forced onto the floorboard of a rental car and taken to Georgia, where he was tied up in a closet for an extensive period.
Willoughby, who retired from his post as district attorney a week before Frank Janssen was kidnapped, returned to the Wake County courthouse Friday to testify in support of Colleen Janssen. She resigned from her job in July 2016, after an 11-year tenure with the office.
Willoughby held Janssen in high regard, and several times while describing her he became so choked with emotions and tears that he had to stop talking and wipe his eyes.
“This is not a comfortable place for either you or I,” Stephens told Willoughby, who now works in private practice after nearly three decades as Wake County’s top prosecutor. “I’m trying to figure out how an extremely professional, highly regarded, confident, dedicated prosecutor got tunnel vision on a case and kind of lost her professional compass and lost her way or didn’t recognize clues in that case that should have put her on notice.”
Janssen has been sidelined from a profession she worked hard at after a state Court of Appeals ruling issued in 2016 brought to light details of the misconduct.
She became emotional Thursday as she described the kidnapping of her father, as well as the impact her misconduct could have on the district attorney’s office that has been an extended family for her.
Janssen disputes that federal prosecutors had provided her as much detail as they said they had in videotaped depositions about the status of the drug charges pending against the victim in the robbery case she prosecuted in state court. Willoughby said he wondered whether the two offices had looked at the cases with different information in a different light.
“I think that when you have two separate prosecutors’ offices... it puts things in a position of not being handled as carefully,” he speculated.
Janssen said Thursday that she had not pursued more information about the drug allegations against her victim because he had been a reluctant witness and she did not want to spook him from taking part in her case.
Janssen had been assigned to prosecute many gang cases, and witnesses for those trials do not always make the best witnesses because they often have been involved in criminal activity, too.
Willoughby told Stephens he struggled himself to understand what had happened to bring many key prosecutors, law enforcement officers, defense attorneys and others to the courtroom to discuss Janssen’s professional conduct.
"She, like everyone in the office, felt a strong responsibility to do the right thing," Willoughby said. "I can't imagine her doing something that would damage the office."
Stephens told Janssen’s attorneys and state Bar attorneys that he planned to take into next week to decide what sanctions, if any, Janssen would face affecting her license to practice law.