Christine Mumma stepped away from the table she had been behind for much of this past week on late Thursday afternoon and walked into a crowd of applauding attorneys and fans.
A three-member N.C. State Bar disciplinary panel had just announced the decision to admonish Mumma, a licensed attorney in North Carolina since 1999, for a minor ethical violation.
A written admonition is the lowest level of discipline that the bar can levy on an attorney. After a two-year struggle to bat back misconduct allegations that could have resulted in the loss of her license, Mumma, head of the N.C. Center on Actual Innocence, was relieved.
“It’s been over two years that I’ve been dealing with this, and I’m just glad it’s over,” an emotional Mumma told gathered media afterward. “I really just wanted it to be over. It’s interfered with my life. It’s interfered with my family’s life. It’s interfered with my work.”
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Mumma’s misconduct was tied to her quest to free Joseph Sledge, now 71, who was imprisoned for almost four decades for a double homicide he did not commit.
Defense attorneys and others gathered at the disciplinary hearing for much of the week questioned why the Mumma case rose to the level of a disciplinary panel.
Some speculated that she was being targeted for her work freeing the wrongfully convicted. They questioned why prosecutors linked to the Sledge case had never faced misconduct allegations.
“I think it’s outrageous,” said Rich Rosen, who taught Mumma at the UNC School of Law and helped establish the Innocence and Capital Punishment projects there. “I think this a public embarrassment for the bar.”
The disciplinary case dates to October 2013, when Mumma went to the home of a woman whose brothers had been suspects in the double killing of which Sledge was wrongfully convicted.
Her work on his innocence claims showed hairs found at the scene did not match the DNA of Sledge, and she pushed Bladen County District Attorney Jon David to reopen the investigation of the homicides.
David and Mumma clashed over how to proceed, and the hearing this week revealed a palpable friction between the two.
Jim Cooney, a Charlotte lawyer and one of four members of Mumma’s high-profile defense team, told the panel in his closing arguments Thursday that David spent more time investigating Mumma than Sledge’s claims of innocence.
“Ms. Mumma did what we expect an honorable attorney to do,” Cooney said. “When she had the evidence that convinced her an injustice had taken place, she took all necessary steps to correct it.”
The bar brought professional misconduct allegations against Mumma after learning that the attorney had a water bottle tested for DNA that she took from a relative of a potential suspect in the Sledge case.
Mumma has said she unintentionally picked up the bottle while at the home of Marie Andrus, whose brothers had been suspects in the double homicide.
Andrus testified this week that she has forgiven Mumma and supported her efforts to free an innocent man from prison. But at the time, she had declined to provide a DNA sample.
Andrus said that she had a distrust of law enforcement and the justice system, and that she wanted to protect her brothers from being framed.
State Bar prosecutors contend that Mumma violated the rights of Andrus when she tested the water bottle without her permission.
The bar also accused Mumma of engaging “in conduct involving dishonesty, fraud, deceit or misrepresentation” and acting in a way that interfered with “the administration of justice.”
She was accused of providing a reporter at The News & Observer a transcript that the bar contends was not a public record, though her attorneys contend it was, and then not being forthcoming with her colleagues in the profession about how the media obtained the document.
Mumma and her attorneys argued that several thoughts were driving her “zealous” behavior as she tried to meet her obligations for representing a wrongfully convicted man.
She was worried about court deadlines approaching and her belief that David would not work to free Sledge unless he had a new suspect. David rejected that allegation.
Leanor Hodge, the attorney representing the bar in its complaint, urged the panel Thursday to see past “the fog” that she contends Mumma and her defense team created.
From the start, Hodge argued that the Sledge case should not factor into the panel’s decision.
Hodge pointed out that though David and Mumma had clearly taken adversarial positions over how to proceed with the Sledge case, a judge had informed them in a hearing that he wanted to hear all the evidence in the case and that a decision on whether to grant relief would not be made until all the evidence was in.
Hodge said that Mumma also knew the N.C. Innocence Inquiry Commission was investigating the case and intended to pursue DNA testing of the suspects in which Mumma was interested. The commission is 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.”
Hodge claimed Mumma concocted a narrative about feeling overly pressured by the district attorney to produce a credible suspect other than Sledge only after her actions.
“She knew what she was doing was wrong,” Hodge said.
Joseph B. Cheshire V, also on the defense team, told reporters afterward that he thought the bar prosecution was meant to persecute a defense attorney whose work had exposed flaws in the justice system and revealed prosecutorial misconduct.
“I worry about the prosecutions against people like Chris Mumma,” Cheshire said afterward. “I worry about the impact it has on justice and the message being sent to people who have the courage to do that work.”
Rick Glazier, a former state lawmaker who now heads the North Carolina Justice Center, described the bar case as a waste of resources that would have been better spent on investigating claims of innocence, such as Sledge’s.
“That’s where the resources should be spent,” Glazier said. “Not on prosecuting a lawyer who was doing an extraordinary job to try to work for a man’s freedom who was innocent and behind bars for a crime he did not commit. This state needs more Chris Mummas, not less of them.”