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Justices reprimand former Marion County prosecutor

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The Indiana Supreme Court has publicly reprimanded former Marion County Prosecutor Carl Brizzi for statements he made about a high-profile murder case, and in doing so the state’s justices have set a new standard and issued a warning for prosecutors statewide: Be careful what you say.

In a 13-page per curiam opinion released late Monday afternoon, the state Supreme Court issued the public reprimand to Brizzi, whose term in office ended in 2010 as this disciplinary action was pending.

“We conclude that in performing his important responsibility of apprising the public of the activities of his office, Respondent stepped beyond the bounds permitted by Rules 3.6 and 3.8,” the court wrote. “We conclude that when these statements were made, Respondent knew or reasonably should have known that they would have a substantial likelihood of (a) materially prejudicing an adjudicative proceeding in the matter and (b) heightening public condemnation of the accused.”

The Indiana Supreme Court's Disciplinary Commission filed a complaint against Brizzi Oct. 1, 2009, accusing him of making statements that went beyond the public information purpose and prejudiced the cases. One of the allegations stems from an April 2008 news conference, when Brizzi made statements about accused multi-state serial killer Bruce Mendenhall. The second allegation involves a 2006 news release about the Indianapolis Hamilton Avenue slayings, where seven people were killed and Brizzi initially sought the death penalty. That case resulted in both defendants receiving life sentences.

Shelby Circuit Judge Charles O’Connor held a disciplinary hearing in January 2011 to hear testimony, and last summer he found in the former prosecutor’s favor. O’Connor recommended that disciplinary charges be dismissed on the grounds that the comments Brizzi made years ago fell under the safe harbor provision of the professional conduct rules and that pre-trial publicity didn’t actually prejudice the defendants. But the disciplinary commission disagreed and asked the justices to reconsider those findings.

The Disciplinary Commission argued the statements Brizzi made in press releases and at news conferences were prejudicial to the administration of justice as soon as they were spoken because actual prejudice of jurors shouldn’t be required as proof. That line has never been explored in Indiana caselaw before, but the Supreme Court has now offered guidance.

Referring to provisions of Rule 3.6, the court wrote that the rules don't require a finding of actual prejudice but rather a substantial likelihood of heightened public condemnation of the accused. Even if time, trial court preventative measures and other factors prevent actual prejudice from occurring, a prosecutor's statements can still rise to the level of meeting the "substantial likelihood" standard, the court wrote.

The justices agreed with O'Connor on dismissing the Mendenhall charge, but they pointed out that the press release relating to the Hamilton Avenue murders didn't include the required explanation that a charge is merely an accusation and the defendant is presumed innocent until proven guilty. That led to a substantial likelihood of prejudice, the court found.

For future statements by Indiana prosecutors, the Brizzi decision lays out a strict interpretation of a current rule that allows their public comments to cite any information contained in a public record. The justices relied on a 2003 ruling from Maryland's appellate bench in Attorney Grievance Committee v. Gansler, 835 A.2d 548, 571 (Md. 2003), which defined a public record as referring only to public government records on file.

"We agree with the definition of 'public record' set forth in Gansler, with the proviso that 'on file' does not mandate such formalities as file stamping or entry on a case docket. A more expansive concept of a public record that includes the unfiltered and untested contents of all publicly accessible media would permit the public record safe harbor to swallow the general rule of restricting prejudicial speech," the court wrote.

The justices wrote that there's no evidence that any of the prosecutor's statements were meant "to serve such law enforcement purposes as protecting potential victims or apprehending suspected perpetrators still at large." They found that some of the information Brizzi provided could have been properly communicated if he'd framed it within any of the safe harbor provisions in Rule 3.6(b).

Noting that Brizzi was repeating information in media accounts and the probable cause affidavit in the Hamilton Avenue murders, the justices gave him the benefit of a broad interpretation of the public record safe harbor. But they warned that the narrower interpretation will be applied to future statements.

With Brizzi having no disciplinary history and the court finding little precedent in Indiana or elsewhere at the time these statements were made, the justices concluded that a public reprimand is appropriate. The costs of proceedings are assessed against Brizzi.

 

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  1. On a related note, I offered the ICLU my cases against the BLE repeatedly, and sought their amici aid repeatedly as well. Crickets. Usually not even a response. I am guessing they do not do allegations of anti-Christian bias? No matter how glaring? I have posted on other links the amicus brief that did get filed (search this ezine, e.g., Kansas attorney), read the Thomas More Society brief to note what the ACLU ran from like vampires from garlic. An Examiner pledged to advance diversity and inclusion came right out on the record and demanded that I choose Man's law or God's law. I wonder, had I been asked to swear off Allah ... what result then, ICLU? Had I been found of bad character and fitness for advocating sexual deviance, what result then ICLU? Had I been lifetime banned for posting left of center statements denigrating the US Constitution, what result ICLU? Hey, we all know don't we? Rather Biased.

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  4. Gretchen, Asia, Roberto, Tonia, Shannon, Cheri, Nicholas, Sondra, Carey, Laura ... my heart breaks for you, reaching out in a forum in which you are ignored by a professional suffering through both compassion fatigue and the love of filthy lucre. Most if not all of you seek a warm blooded Hoosier attorney unafraid to take on the government and plead that government officials have acted unconstitutionally to try to save a family and/or rescue children in need and/or press individual rights against the Leviathan state. I know an attorney from Kansas who has taken such cases across the country, arguing before half of the federal courts of appeal and presenting cases to the US S.Ct. numerous times seeking cert. Unfortunately, due to his zeal for the constitutional rights of peasants and willingness to confront powerful government bureaucrats seemingly violating the same ... he was denied character and fitness certification to join the Indiana bar, even after he was cleared to sit for, and passed, both the bar exam and ethics exam. And was even admitted to the Indiana federal bar! NOW KNOW THIS .... you will face headwinds and difficulties in locating a zealously motivated Hoosier attorney to face off against powerful government agents who violate the constitution, for those who do so tend to end up as marginalized as Paul Odgen, who was driven from the profession. So beware, many are mere expensive lapdogs, the kind of breed who will gladly take a large retainer, but then fail to press against the status quo and powers that be when told to heel to. It is a common belief among some in Indiana that those attorneys who truly fight the power and rigorously confront corruption often end up, actually or metaphorically, in real life or at least as to their careers, as dead as the late, great Gary Welch. All of that said, I wish you the very best in finding a Hoosier attorney with a fighting spirit to press your rights as far as you can, for you do have rights against government actors, no matter what said actors may tell you otherwise. Attorneys outside the elitist camp are often better fighters that those owing the powers that be for their salaries, corner offices and end of year bonuses. So do not be afraid to retain a green horn or unconnected lawyer, many of them are fine men and woman who are yet untainted by the "unique" Hoosier system.

  5. I am not the John below. He is a journalist and talk show host who knows me through my years working in Kansas government. I did no ask John to post the note below ...

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