A three-member panel is expected to begin deliberating on Thursday the fate of Christine Mumma and her standing among her peers in the legal profession.
The deliberations will cap three days of testimony on allegations that Mumma, head of the North Carolina Center on Actual Innocence, violated professional conduct codes in her quest to free a wrongfully convicted man.
Mumma is accused of overstepping ethical bounds when she had a water bottle tested for DNA without the knowledge of the woman from whose home she had taken it.
She also is accused of providing a transcript to the media that bar officials contend was not then a part of the public record.
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The bar also accused her of engaging “in conduct involving dishonesty, fraud, deceit or misrepresentation” and acting in a way that interfered with “the administration of justice.”
Mumma contends that she did not violate any rules of conduct, that any missteps she might have made were done in her quest to correct an injustice.
The case of Joseph Sledge, a septuagenarian who spent more than three decades incarcerated for a double murder he did not commit, is at the center of the Mumma allegations.
On Wednesday, the hearing exposed a palpable friction between Jon David, the Bladen County district attorney who inherited the Sledge case, and Mumma.
David, who has been at the hearing throughout the week, took the stand on Wednesday afternoon as a rebuttal witness for bar prosecutors.
David and Lee Bollinger, an assistant district attorney in Bladen County, disagreed with Mumma’s narrative about what they expected from her in the case.
In her quest to win freedom for Sledge, Mumma began meeting with David several years ago to outline her findings from almost a decade of investigation into the inmate’s claims of innocence.
Mumma testified that she thought David was expecting her to bring the district attorney a new suspect before he would consider dismissing the case.
“I would never impose on a criminal defendant that he would do the state of North Carolina’s job for him and find the perpetrator,” David testified on Wednesday. “I find that suggestion to be offensive.”
David and Bollinger said on several occasions that reports about the Sledge case published in March 2013 in The News & Observer left them fighting an image that they “had in innocent man languishing in prison.”
David described the Sledge case as being part of a “soap-opera-like atmosphere” and he suggested that Mumma was behind that “by leaking details to the press.”
Mumma’s attorneys pointed out that though David contended “leaks to the media” were “very troubling,” he did not find any factual errors in the news report.
By the summer of 2013, David was meeting with staff from the N.C. Innocence Inquiry Commission, a state agency unique to North Carolina that “is charged with providing an independent and balanced truth-seeking forum for credible post-conviction claims of innocence.”
Mumma’s organization has referred cases to the Commission, several of which have resulted in high-profile exonerations.
Sledge won freedom through the commission process, but Mumma also was seeking relief through a different court process.
David and Mumma were at odds about the schedule for that process after the report on Sledge was publicized by the media.
Attorneys for Mumma asked the district attorney on Wednesday about their client’s contentions that he said “game on” during a time when court deadlines loomed and she thought she had a limited window to make a strong case for freeing Sledge.
“I was very concerned of the public’s perception that we had an innocent man languishing in prison, and we were doing everything in our power to get him out,” David said. “She was asking me instead to stand in a back room and wave a magic wand and make that happen, and I thought that was wildly inappropriate.”
But defense attorneys pointed out that David did not push for the DNA testing that Mumma pursued.
They also pointed out that he had a heavy hand in the bar complaint filed against Mumma.
He also alerted the second in command at the State Bureau of Investigation about the water bottle incident and the next day SBI agents were investigating whether a larceny had occurred.
The hearing continues on Thursday.
Jerry Parnell, who has served on state and national legal ethics panels, and Lane Williamson, a former member of the State Bar’s Disciplinary Hearing Commission, both testified for the defense on Wednesday that Mumma’s actions were warranted. She had an obligation to represent Sledge, a man who could have spent the rest of his life in prison for crimes he did not commit, the attorneys said.
In balancing those interests, Williamson said, “the scale hits the ground” in favor of Sledge.