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Brizzi discipline case could set new prejudice standard

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The Indiana Supreme Court’s Disciplinary Commission wants to set a new standard of “actual prejudice” for attorney misconduct. In making that argument, the validity of two high-profile murder convictions that Carl Brizzi secured during his time as prosecutor in the state’s largest county are being questioned.

Briefs were submitted last week in the disciplinary action against the former Marion County prosecutor, with both the state and defense issuing their findings and related legal arguments for a special judge to consider in the coming weeks. Shelby Circuit Judge Charles O’Connor is serving as hearing officer on the case and held a one-day hearing in January. He will now submit a report to the Indiana Supreme Court about whether any misconduct occurred and if he thinks a sanction is needed.

Both Disciplinary Commission attorney David Hughes and defense attorney Kevin McGoff appeared in Judge O’Connor’s courtroom Jan. 7 to make their arguments, with Brizzi and his former spokesman testifying on the stand. The submitted briefs outline the evidence and what each side argues should happen in the case.

While McGoff’s brief for the defense requests the disciplinary case be dismissed because no violations occurred, Hughes doesn’t make any recommendations, but clearly points to what he sees as violations of Indiana Rules of Professional Conduct by Brizzi in 2006 and 2008.

The commission filed a formal complaint against Brizzi Oct. 1, 2009, accusing him of making statements that went beyond the public information purpose and prejudiced the pair of cases – violations of Indiana Professional Conduct Rules 3.8(f) and Rule 3.6(a). One issue arose during an April 2008 news conference when Brizzi made statements about accused multi-state serial killer Bruce Mendenhall, and a second allegation involves a 2006 news release about the Indianapolis Hamilton Ave. slayings where seven people were killed and Brizzi initially sought the death penalty for the accused, Desmond Turner and James Stewart. A comment in that news release stated about the defendants, "They weren't going to let anyone or anything get in the way of what they believed to be an easy score."

Hughes said those comments were prejudicial against the individuals, and he insinuated the motivation behind the statements was part of a larger message the prosecutor was sending at a time when Indianapolis saw higher crime trends and, in 2006, Brizzi faced a heated election race.

In his brief, Hughes points to scant Indiana caselaw on pre-trial publicity in the context of the state’s attorney conduct rules. He points to Maryland and Michigan cases that he argues offer guidance for interpreting Brizzi’s statements to be extrajudicial comments and that actual prejudice isn’t required to show an impact on the proceedings. Hughes also argues that the true impact of the conduct in question can’t be known because both Stewart and Turner were found guilty on all charges and there’s no way to impugn the jury or question the trier-of-fact so long after the proceedings.

But McGoff counters those claims, saying that Brizzi was within his authority to inform the public about the decision-making process that the prosecutor’s office used for the charges and rest of the legal proceedings. His comments didn’t create any actual prejudice as national precedent has dictated is needed, McGoff contends, and what Brizzi said is protected by the safe harbor provisions within the conduct rules. However, he admits that little guidance has been outlined concerning what does and doesn’t fall into that category.

“Nevertheless, it is not always clear, from a practitioner’s standpoint, which statements fall into the safe harbor,” McGoff wrote. “For example, the rule fails to specify how much can be included in a statement of ‘the defense involved’ or ‘the result of any step in litigation’ – or whether the category of ‘public documents’ includes media reports.”

He relies on similar precedent from Indiana, including the prosecutor defamation case of Foster v. Pearcy, 387 N.E.2d 446, 448 (Ind. 1979), that have held a prosecutor is responsible for apprising the public of important case developments.

Once Judge O’Connor submits his report for consideration, the Indiana Supreme Court will make the final disciplinary decision. No timeline exists for that to happen. Penalties, if deemed necessary, could range anywhere from a private reprimand to a more severe sanction. Impacting the discipline could be the fact that Brizzi left office at the end of 2010 and is now in private practice.
 

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  2. Yes diversity is so very important. With justice Rucker off ... the court is too white. Still too male. No Hispanic justice. No LGBT justice. And there are other checkboxes missing as well. This will not do. I say hold the seat until a physically handicapped Black Lesbian of Hispanic heritage and eastern religious creed with bipolar issues can be located. Perhaps an international search, with a preference for third world candidates, is indicated. A non English speaker would surely increase our diversity quotient!!!

  3. First, I want to thank Justice Rucker for his many years of public service, not just at the appellate court level for over 25 years, but also when he served the people of Lake County as a Deputy Prosecutor, City Attorney for Gary, IN, and in private practice in a smaller, highly diverse community with a history of serious economic challenges, ethnic tensions, and recently publicized but apparently long-standing environmental health risks to some of its poorest residents. Congratulations for having the dedication & courage to practice law in areas many in our state might have considered too dangerous or too poor at different points in time. It was also courageous to step into a prominent and highly visible position of public service & respect in the early 1990's, remaining in a position that left you open to state-wide public scrutiny (without any glitches) for over 25 years. Yes, Hoosiers of all backgrounds can take pride in your many years of public service. But people of color who watched your ascent to the highest levels of state government no doubt felt even more as you transcended some real & perhaps some perceived social, economic, academic and professional barriers. You were living proof that, with hard work, dedication & a spirit of public service, a person who shared their same skin tone or came from the same county they grew up in could achieve great success. At the same time, perhaps unknowingly, you helped fellow members of the judiciary, court staff, litigants and the public better understand that differences that are only skin-deep neither define nor limit a person's character, abilities or prospects in life. You also helped others appreciate that people of different races & backgrounds can live and work together peacefully & productively for the greater good of all. Those are truths that didn't have to be written down in court opinions. Anyone paying attention could see that truth lived out every day you devoted to public service. I believe you have been a "trailblazer" in Indiana's legal community and its judiciary. I also embrace your belief that society's needs can be better served when people in positions of governmental power reflect the many complexions of the population that they serve. Whether through greater understanding across the existing racial spectrum or through the removal of some real and some perceived color-based, hope-crushing barriers to life opportunities & success, movement toward a more reflective representation of the population being governed will lead to greater and uninterrupted respect for laws designed to protect all peoples' rights to life, liberty & the pursuit of happiness. Thanks again for a job well-done & for the inevitable positive impact your service has had - and will continue to have - on countless Hoosiers of all backgrounds & colors.

  4. Diversity is important, but with some limitations. For instance, diversity of experience is a great thing that can be very helpful in certain jobs or roles. Diversity of skin color is never important, ever, under any circumstance. To think that skin color changes one single thing about a person is patently racist and offensive. Likewise, diversity of values is useless. Some values are better than others. In the case of a supreme court justice, I actually think diversity is unimportant. The justices are not to impose their own beliefs on rulings, but need to apply the law to the facts in an objective manner.

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