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Prosecutor denies misconduct accusations

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Marion County Prosecutor Carl Brizzi denies that he violated any professional conduct rules in his handling of two high-profile murder cases, specifically in his written or spoken statements made when describing the crimes to the public.

On Monday, just three days before the prosecutor announced he won't be seeking a third term, Brizzi filed an answer to disciplinary charges lodged against him late last year by the Indiana Supreme Court's Disciplinary Commission.

In its formal complaint against Brizzi filed Oct. 1, the commission alleged that public comments the prosecutor made about two murder cases crossed the line and violated the attorney conduct rules. Brizzi's statements went beyond the public information purpose and prejudiced the pair of cases, according to the complaint, and amounted to violations of Indiana Professional Conduct Rules 3.8(f) and Rule 3.6(a).

Some of the comments came during an April 2008 news conference, where Brizzi made statements about the case against accused multi-state serial killer Bruce Mendenhall, alleged to have killed Carma Purpura in Indianapolis as well as other women in Tennessee and Alabama. A second allegation from the commission involves a 2006 news release about the city's Hamilton Avenue slayings, where seven people were brutally killed in Indianapolis and Brizzi initially sought the death penalty. 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."

"The above public statements of the Respondent ... were not necessary to inform the public of the nature and extent of the prosecutor's action and did not serve a legitimate law enforcement purpose, and the same were extrajudicial comments that had a substantial likelihood of heightening public condemnation ..." the complaint says.

Responding to the complaint, Brizzi's answer came after two previous extensions that delayed the case for about three months. He admits the general information about the underlying cases the statements were made about, but declined to admit or deny the specific claims cited in the complaint because the documents they were reportedly taken from were not included as part of the verified complaint.

In the seven-page answer, Brizzi's attorney Kevin McGoff at Bingham McHale in Indianapolis offered one legal defense for his client: "A lawyer is permitted to make an extrajudicial statement, as contemplated by Ind. Prof. Cond.R. 3.6(b), including but not limited to: (2) information contained in a public record and; (3) an investigation is in progress."

Indianapolis attorney William Hodes, an expert in lawyer ethics, said he found the case interesting, highlighting the gray area and tension between parts (a) and (b) of Rule 3.6. While unfamiliar with details of the Brizzi case, he noted that both sides appear to be making reasonable points in relation to the rules.

The rule applies to the public record, such as an indictment or probable cause document, not any of a prosecutor's own documents such as a press release.

"The charges sound like they're in the ballpark of what's off limits by the rules, and the defense seems solid," he said. "This could be a fairly close case, with legitimate arguments on both sides if you really look at the exceptions and qualifiers in the rules."

Bloomington law professor Charles Geyh at Indiana University Maurer School of Law - Bloomington agreed, saying the rules being examined here are "a thicket, owing to the First Amendment rights of the lawyer to speak and the difficulty of determining when there is a 'substantial likelihood' of material prejudice."

The Disciplinary Commission is now able to file a response to Brizzi's answer, and once that happens the Indiana Supreme Court can appoint a hearing officer to examine the evidence. Justices have final say over attorney disciplinary issues, and if it finds any misconduct the penalties could range from a private reprimand to a suspension or disbarment.

Admitted to practice in 1994, Brizzi was first elected prosecutor in 2002 and was re-elected in 2006. This is the first time Brizzi has faced any professional misconduct charges, according to his office. But whatever happens with this disciplinary action, it won't impact whether he remains prosecutor of the state's largest county past 2010 - Brizzi announced Thursday he wouldn't seek a third term in November's election. He hasn't announced what his future plans are.

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