Christine Mumma defends actions as seeking justice for an innocent man

Christine Mumma, director of the North Carolina Center on Actual Innocence, looks over an affidavit as she testifies in front of the North Carolina Innocence Inquiry Commission in Raleigh on Dec. 3, 2014.
Christine Mumma, director of the North Carolina Center on Actual Innocence, looks over an affidavit as she testifies in front of the North Carolina Innocence Inquiry Commission in Raleigh on Dec. 3, 2014. NEWS & OBSERVER FILE PHOTO

Christine Mumma, an advocate for the falsely accused who is facing professional misconduct accusations, insists that any missteps were motivated solely by her interest in freeing a wrongfully convicted man.

The executive director of the North Carolina Center on Actual Innocence has responded to the State Bar, the organization that oversees lawyers in North Carolina.

In a document that reveals Bladen County District Attorney Jon David as a source of the initial bar complaint, Mumma’s attorneys contend the accusations “seek to publicly sanction her over a minor part of her decade-long effort to achieve justice and restore confidence in the criminal justice system” for a wrongful conviction and imprisonment.

Joseph Sledge, a septuagenarian who was wrongfully convicted of a 1976 double-homicide and imprisoned for 36 years, was declared innocent in January by a three-judge panel that considered evidence Mumma had helped gather.

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.

Mumma contends she violated no professional codes of conduct and has asked the Bar to dismiss its complaint against her.

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.

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, according to her response filed with the Bar last week, she did not immediately realize what she had done.

“When she realized, at the car, that the bottle was not hers, she began to think about the implications of having evidence that could support her client’s claim of actual innocence, and she believed she had a duty to her client to consider the options,” Mumma’s attorneys stated in the June 16 response.

The attorneys — Alan Schneider, Brad Bannon, Joseph B. Cheshire V, all of Raleigh, and Jim Cooney of Charlotte — said Mumma was feeling pressured because prosecutors were pushing for a hearing that could have ended Sledge’s bid to overturn his conviction. Mumma had already laid out numerous problems with his case in a court motion seeking relief — hair found on one victim did not match Sledge’s DNA. There were accusations that jailhouse snitches had been offered money for their testimony and evidence that the prosecutor who tried the case in 1978 failed to provide defense attorneys with inconsistent informant statements that might have helped Sledge.

The N.C. Innocence Inquiry Commission agreed to take on the Sledge case July 1, 2013. But Mumma did not think the state agency would act quickly on DNA testing, according to her Bar response, and had the water bottle tested without permission of the family or with the commission’s immediate knowledge.

Kendra Montgomery-Blinn, executive director of the Innocence Inquiry Commission, joined David, the Bladen County district attorney, in filing a grievance with the Bar about Mumma’s actions. The commission has the power to obtain court orders for testing and eventually did. The commission’s DNA sampling excluded the brothers, as had Mumma’s. The commission built its case for Sledge’s innocence on other claims, and the three-judge panel ruled in its favor in January.

Mumma’s attorneys contend she did not act secretly or deceitfully. She informed both the Innocence Commission and district attorney about her actions. “This voluntary and open disclosure led to these charges and belies any claim that Ms. Mumma acted either in secrecy or with an attempt to deceive,” her attorneys stated.

Mumma’s disciplinary hearing was postponed from early August. It had not been rescheduled Tuesday.

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Twitter: @AnneBlythe1