A State Bar disciplinary hearing committee on Friday cleared a defense attorney who worked on a historic Racial Justice Act case of professional misconduct allegations.
Gretchen Engel, executive director of the Center for Death Penalty Litigation in Durham and a lawyer licensed in North Carolina since March 1993, said afterward that she was relieved the three-judge panel ruled in her favor.
The Engel case has been carefully watched by attorneys across the state for the larger implications it could have on lawyers whose court documents include unintentional mistakes.
Some have described the bar complaint against Engel as politically motivated by prosecutors and others unhappy with the findings and rulings in a former death row inmate’s successful challenge of his capital-punishment sentencing using the Racial Justice Act.
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But it is unclear who filed the grievance against Engel because it was filed anonymously.
Lane Williamson, a lawyer from Charlotte who represented Engel at the bar hearing, argued before the ruling that the panel would set a dangerous precedent with a misconduct ruling. What happened, Williamson said, “was a mistake, an honest mistake made by a hard-working lawyer.”
Mary Winstead, a former prosecutor with the state attorney general’s office, argued that Engel’s mistake was prejudicial to the administration of justice. She said that a sworn statement submitted by Engel inaccurately “carried the message that a prosecutor had discriminated in his question” and played a role in the outcome of the Racial Justice Act case. But the disciplinary panel disagreed with her.
The bar complaint focused on Engel’s work with a team of lawyers who used the short-lived Racial Justice Act to convert a North Carolina death row inmate’s sentence in 2012 to life without possibility for parole.
At issue was whether Engel violated professional codes of conduct in relaying information to the courts after interviewing two African-American men who were excluded from serving on the 1994 jury that decided the fate of Marcus Reymond Robinson.
Robinson, an African-American male, was sentenced to death for the 1991 killing of Erik Tornblum, a white teenager. In 2012, Judge Gregory Weeks issued a landmark ruling in Cumberland County Superior Court saying prosecutors across the state had engaged in deliberate and systematic racial discrimination when striking black potential jurors in death penalty cases.
Under the Racial Justice Act, which has since been overturned by the North Carolina legislature, Weeks was able to reduce the death sentence for Robinson to life in prison with no possibility for parole.
The State Bar has not brought any complaints against prosecutors, who also submitted sworn statements in the Robinson case that included inaccurate information.
“We’re not saying, ‘Oh, they ought to be charged as well,’” Williamson said in his closing statement to the disciplinary panel. “We’re saying they made mistakes.”
The bar complaint contended that Engel and Cassandra Stubbs, another lawyer on the Racial Justice Act case, included inaccurate information for the court to consider that ranged from a wrong address to a recollection from one of the potential jurors that did not jibe with the official trial transcript.
When Engel and Stubbs, a lawyer with the American Civil Liberties Union Capital Punishment Project, received notice of the allegations, they brought them to the attention of Weeks. The judge said in an order that the statements submitted by Engel and Stubbs had not played a role in his Robinson decision. In his ruling, he also mentioned mistakes made by prosecutors from four counties – Forsyth, Cumberland, Johnston and Wilson.
Stubbs took a different legal route from Engel in fighting the bar accusations against her. She was found guilty by a different bar disciplinary panel of professional misconduct. Stubbs was admonished, meaning the three-member panel that presided over her case found she committed a minor violation of the rules of professional conduct.
Stubbs, who was at the Engel hearing but left before the ruling, could appeal the decision in her case or ask for her panel to reconsider its finding in light of the Engel ruling.