Colleen Janssen, the Wake County prosecutor whose father was kidnapped in 2014, engaged in misconduct in two robbery and assault cases later that year that led to this week’s N.C. Court of Appeals decision to overturn the convictions.
Defendants in the robbery cases contend that Janssen, an assistant Wake County district attorney, urged a Raleigh police detective to delay bringing drug charges against her key witness until after their trials.
According to the appellate ruling, Janssen not only corresponded with the investigator through her personal email account, but she failed to disclose the information to defense attorneys who could have used the details to raise questions about the prosecutor’s witness, a man now convicted of marijuana trafficking.
The ruling was issued Tuesday, the same day that a federal jury convicted Kelvin Melton, a high-ranking gang member, of conspiring with others to kidnap Janssen’s father, Frank Janssen, from his Wake Forest home.
Federal prosecutors contended Melton orchestrated Frank Janssen’s abduction from inside his state prison cell to exact revenge on Colleen Janssen. She was the lead prosecutor in the case that led to Melton receiving a lifetime prison sentence after being declared a violent habitual felon.
It’s unclear what, if any, impact the appeals court ruling will have on Melton or the kidnapping case.
Detective urged to wait
Bashiri Sandy and Henry Surpris, the men who brought the misconduct contentions, no longer stand convicted of robbery charges related to a shooting that occurred outside a North Raleigh town home on April 17, 2013.
Sandy and Surpris were accused of stealing $1,153 and a ring from Marcus Shu-Aib Smith and shooting him outside his residence on Brook Knoll Place. Prosecutors contended that Sandy and Surpris went to Smith’s home, knowing he would have a large amount of cash on him because he was a “club promoter.”
Sandy and Surpris, who were tried together in Wake County Superior Court in 2014, contended that Smith was a marijuana dealer who had not come through with drugs they had purchased. Instead of going inside his town home and disturbing his family to retrieve what he owed them, Smith gave the men the money and jewelry, according to the narrative of the accused. They contended that Smith shot at them as they were leaving his place. They suffered gunshot injuries that were treated at Rex Hospital.
During the trial, prosecutors objected to the defendants’ narrative. Prosecutors argued that there was no evidence that Smith was a major drug dealer, that the two defendants were the only ones putting forth such information. Smith testified that he had not been involved in the illegal drug trade since 2005.
But it was later revealed that Smith was under investigation for moving large quantities of marijuana, and that Janssen knew about it when she prosecuted Sandy and Surpris. The email exchange between Janssen and the detective turned up in the federal case against Smith. That correspondence was key in the request for relief that Sandy and Surpris sought from the state Court of Appeals.
Appellate defenders Staples Hughes, Paul Green and Cary attorney Craig M. Cooley argued that Janssen had “manipulated the criminal process,” then concealed that from the defendants and their attorneys, and made “false” and “misleading” arguments to the jury in the assault and robbery cases.
Wake County District Attorney Lorrin Freeman said this week that she had reviewed the ruling and reiterated to the prosecutor’s office she took over in 2015 that she would rather see her assistant district attorneys turn over too much information to avoid the possibility or perception of withholding important evidence from defendants.
“I don’t take lightly the suggestions here,” Freeman said Thursday. “We are committed to honoring defendants’ rights and turning over discovery.”
Freeman elaborated on why Janssen might have used her personal email instead of her professional email when communicating with the Raleigh detective. Often, Freeman said, prosecutors take their work home with them at night and on the weekends. They can set their work email to go to their personal email on phones or laptops, and responses might show that address instead of their work address in a response.
Freeman said prosecutors can sign into their work emails outside the office, and she will encourage them to do that after the Janssen incident.
“There really was nothing nefarious with that,” Freeman said.
Freeman is reviewing the robbery and assault cases pending against Sandy and Surpris and deciding whether, given what has happened since then, her office can proceed toward retrial. Smith, the victim and key witness in the case, has been convicted on federal drug charges, Freeman said.