A three-member N.C. State Bar panel rejected a request from prosecutors Monday to find Christine Mumma, head of the N.C. Center on Actual Innocence, guilty of professional misconduct without a full hearing on the allegations.
Mumma, an advocate for the falsely accused, was investigating claims of innocence by a wrongfully convicted man when she took the actions that resulted in the disciplinary hearing expected to last through the week.
The bar, which oversees lawyers in this state, contends that Mumma used “methods of obtaining evidence that violate the legal rights of a third person” while investigating the claims of a man who was incarcerated for more than three decades for a crime he did not commit.
Attorneys representing Mumma argue that any missteps their client might have made while investigating the innocence claims of Joseph Sledge were motivated solely by her interest in freeing a wrongfully convicted man.
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Sledge, a septuagenarian who was wrongfully convicted of a 1976 double-homicide and imprisoned for 36 years, was declared innocent in January 2015 by a three-judge panel that considered evidence Mumma had helped gather.
Sledge was at the hearing on Monday afternoon to support Mumma.
“It’s a misunderstanding,” Sledge said. “Truly that’s all this is.”
Sledge might still be in prison, her team of attorneys contends, had it not been for Mumma’s initial interest in investigating the claims of innocence and her zealous persistence in trying to get the case before a Bladen County judge or the N.C. Innocence Inquiry Commission.
In a five-page complaint made public in May, the State Bar took issue with the way 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.
The Bar contends Mumma used “methods of obtaining evidence that violate the legal rights of a third person,” in violation of professional conduct rules, in obtaining the DNA testing of that bottle without permission of the woman from whose home it was taken.
Previous clients’ support
In addition to Sledge, others who had been exonerated in high-profile wrongful conviction cases were at the hearing, too.
Dwayne Allen Dail, who served 18 years in a state prison for a 1987 rape he did not commit, told media crews he thought the case was brought to try to slow Mumma down in her quest to free the wrongfully convicted from prison.
Willie Grimes, declared innocent of a 1987 rape conviction, sat quietly in the back of the courtroom to show support for a woman whose interest in his case helped free him.
Larry Lamb, who was wrongfully imprisoned for more than 20 years for the murder of a Duplin County bootlegger, traveled from Massachusetts to show his support.
Gregory Taylor, who spent 17 years wrongfully incarcerated before becoming the first freed by North Carolina’s unique Innocence Inquiry Commission, was at the hearing to show support, too.
I. Beverly Lake, a former chief justice of the N.C. Supreme Court and an ardent supporter of Mumma since he had a heavy hand in the establishment of the Innocence Commission, also was among the dozens in the crowd to support the attorney fighting the bar allegations.
Water bottle controversy
The bar complaint also alleges that Mumma “engaged in conduct involving dishonesty, fraud, deceit or misrepresentation,” also a violation of a professional conduct rule.
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.
The Bar complaint contends that, in October 2013, Mumma visited the home of the brothers’ sister, hoping to obtain a DNA sample that could either point to the men as suspects or eliminate them.
During that visit, the woman did not consent to Mumma’s DNA request. As she was leaving, Mumma picked up a water bottle that was not hers. But Jim Cooney, one of the high-profile defense attorneys representing Mumma, said on Monday that Mumma had inadvertently taken the bottle.
“There is no allegation that Ms. Mumma went to the house to steal the water bottle,” Cooney said. “Mistakenly taking something doesn’t violate the rights of a third person.”
Marie Andrus, the woman whom state bar prosecutors contend had her rights violated, testified at the hearing Monday that she had forgiven Mumma.
Andrus said she has had a long simmering distrust of law enforcement and the justice system, and when Mumma came to her house that was her overwhelming sense.
‘Good outweighs the bad’
Since then, Andrus has met with Mumma and looked up the work the attorney has done and has no issues with her.
“I don’t know of anyone who is human who hasn’t made some kind of mistake in some kind of way, if you call that a mistake,” Andrus said. “The good outweighs the bad.”
The hearing to determine whether Mumma violated the bar’s professional conduct code is expected to last through Friday.