Former Wake prosecutor says father’s kidnapping played a role in her professional misconduct

The former Wake County prosecutor whose father was kidnapped in a bizarre scheme hatched by an imprisoned gang leader, was in court Wednesday facing possible sanctions against her law license.

Colleen Janssen was an assistant Wake County district attorney for 11 years before her resignation last summer. Attorneys representing her and the N.C. State Bar went before Wake County Superior Court Judge Donald Stephens on Wednesday to lay out what led to the accusations that she withheld evidence from defense attorneys in a drug-related shooting case unrelated to the kidnapping.

Joseph Zeszotarski, the Raleigh attorney representing Janssen, told Stephens in an opening statement that Janssen’s misconduct was tied to apprehension and stress that had overwhelmed her after her father, Frank Janssen, was kidnapped from his Wake Forest home in April 2014.

“There’s no question Ms. Janssen made mistakes,” Zeszotarski said. “The question ... is why did this happen? How did this happen?”

The hearing Wednesday put prosecutors and defense attorneys in an unusual position of being called to the witness stand to testify in the case.

Janssen resigned in July, several weeks after Wake County District Attorney Lorrin Freeman suspended her to look into misconduct allegations detailed in a N.C. Court of Appeals ruling issued on June 21. The three-judge panel unanimously agreed to overturn robbery convictions for Bashiri Sandy and Henry Surpris.

Sandy and Surpris contended that they had been denied their right to a fair trial because Janssen urged a Raleigh police detective to delay bringing drug charges against her key witness in their case until after the men had been tried.

In the disciplinary hearing in front of Stephens, police investigators, defense attorneys and prosecutors recounted their interactions with Janssen before the trial of the men in the fall of 2014 and afterward as appellate attorneys and defense attorneys planned for post-trial hearings.

John Bruce, the acting U.S. Attorney for the Eastern District of North Carolina, recounted in a videotaped interview a call he made to Assistant District Attorney Howard Cummings in 2014 after he learned from a federal investigator that Janssen had indicated an unwillingness to hear that the victim in her case, Marcus Smith, was a key suspect in a federal drug investigation.

That was a key detail that defense attorneys had been trying to get before a jury during the drug-related shooting case, but Janssen argued to jurors that the defense team had provided no such evidence for the jury to consider.

Raleigh attorneys Dewey O’Kelly and Deborah Newton, who defended Sandy and Surpris, testified Wednesday that had they had that information the jury might not have convicted their clients.

“I think the jury would have been more likely to believe our clients if they understood from the beginning that Marcus Smith was a drug dealer,” O’Kelly said.

Janssen not only asked a federal prosecutor to delay a case against Smith, she corresponded, through her personal email account, with the investigator who planned to bring drug charges against him, according to court documents related to the case, but failed to disclose that information to defense attorneys until after the trial.

Smith eventually was arrested on drug charges. In preparation for that trial in federal court, Janssen’s emails were discovered. One of them, from a Yahoo account, went from Janssen to the Raleigh detective investigating Smith on July 27, 2014.

“I am ... reaching out to you because Marcus Smith is the victim in a fairly nasty home-invasion case of mine that is set to go to trial in the very near future, so I’d like to talk to you a bit about it, as well as educate myself on what your investigation entails, before anything too much further happens,” Janssen wrote.

Cummings, who has been in the Wake County district attorney’s office for nearly three decades, testified Wednesday that Janssen’s demeanor changed after her father’s kidnapping.

Before her father was taken from his Wake County home and held in Atlanta against his will, Janssen “ran wide open the whole time.”

After the kidnapping, Janssen, like others in the courthouse, was more apprehensive, Cummings said, “not an extrovert as she had been before,” “not as bouncy,” “a little more guarded.”

“One of the things that Colleen had to do was be aware of all the potential threats around her,” Cummings said.

The hearing will pick up again Thursday and is likely to extend into the afternoon before attorneys for the state bar and Janssen offer their closing arguments for Stephens, the chief resident judge of Wake County Superior Court.

Anne Blythe: 919-836-4948, @AnneBlythe1