Christine Mumma, an advocate for the wrongfully convicted, suffered a painful reversal Thursday. A disciplinary panel for the N.C. State Bar ruled that she violated professional conduct as she sought evidence that would free a man wrongfully convicted of murder.
The ruling came with irony. The legal system had failed to keep Joseph Sledge, 71, from spending more than three decades in prison until Mumma took up his cause and won his freedom. No one was rebuked for that massive failure, but there was Mumma being grilled for how she mishandled a water bottle when seeking DNA evidence that might point to Sledge’s innocence.
That contrast was stark, but the panel’s ruling was fair. Mumma admitted to keeping a water bottle she said she inadvertently picked up while speaking to a woman whose brothers had been suspects in the crime Sledge was wrongfully charged with committing.
Mumma’s attorney, Jim Cooney, argued that Mumma’s zeal for justice justified her violating the privacy rights of the former suspects’ relative by keeping and testing the water bottle. But the standards of justice can’t bend to suit sympathy or good intentions any more than they can bend to serve disdain or prosecutorial zeal, elements that often contributed to the wrongful convictions Mumma has sought to overturn.
Mumma now knows better the link between proper procedure and justice. Her formal admonishment by the bar was the appropriate punishment. Now she needs to return to her important work.