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A former Knox County chief deputy prosecutor has been suspended from the practice of law for abusing his prosecutorial authority as part of a retaliation campaign against a detective who discovered his sexual relationship with a criminal defendant. The elected Knox County prosecutor also faces a related disciplinary case, according to the Indiana Supreme Court.
Joseph Burton of Farmersburg served as chief deputy prosecutor in southwestern Indiana’s Knox County until retiring from that position in April 2018. The Indiana Supreme Court in a Wednesday per curiam order suspended Burton from the practice of law in Indiana for 90 days with automatic reinstatement, effective immediately.
Burton’s issues began in December 2017 after a woman he knew facing methamphetamine-related charges in Greene County met with a Vincennes Police Department detective. The detective, who had been informed by Indiana State Police that the woman was sexually involved with a prosecutor, asked during an interview if either Burton or elected Knox County prosecutor J. Dirk Carnahan had engaged in a sexual relationship with her.
The woman indicated that she had been in an on-and-off relationship with Burton for roughly 20 years, according to the per curiam order, and the detective subsequently advised her against telling Burton about the interview. However, after she was convicted, sentenced and incarcerated, the woman informed Burton of the interview, to which he responded of the detective: “that little bitch’s got it coming now; I’ll have that bitch by her fucking hair now.”
According to the Supreme Court’s order, Burton also told the woman that Carnahan “went berserk” after learning of the interview and planned to escalate the matter to the Vincennes police chief. Burton then instructed the woman to supply him and Carnahan with a statement about the interview. Burton also provided the woman with specific guidance on what the statement should say, which was later given to Carnahan.
After receiving the letter, Carnahan filed an employee misconduct complaint against the detective with the Vincennes Police Department, according to the order. Meanwhile, Burton discussed possibilities of the woman’s sentence being modified and her living with him on electronic monitoring home detention instead of serving the remainder of her sentence on work release. Burton agreed to talk with the Greene County prosecutor about it and told the woman “you’ve got an ally in the right place, after you sent that letter.”
Additionally, Burton called the woman after the complaint was filed and instructed her to tell any future investigators that Burton was her attorney and that any inquiries should be referred to him. A few weeks later, on April 21, 2018, Burton “retired” from his chief deputy position.
When Vincennes police investigators met with the woman in prison the next month, Burton instructed her to not speak with them again and to write another letter to Carnahan. Burton provided guidance on what she should say.
In its suspension order, the Supreme Court noted that the facts of Burton’s case involve more than an isolated conflict of interest, but rather, “… an attempt by Respondent to improperly leverage his prosecutorial authority to exact a personal vendetta against a police detective.”
“Respondent similarly abused his position in an effort to retaliate against a detective who, acting upon information provided to her by another law enforcement agency, was seeking to determine whether Respondent or Carnahan had attempted to trade consideration of leniency in Defendant’s criminal matters over the years for sexual contact. Like the chief deputy in (Matter of Christoff and Holmes, 690 N.E.2d 1135 (Ind. 1997)), Respondent’s overriding motivation was not to further the public interest but rather to protect his own self-interest,” the order states.
The high court therefore concluded that mid-range suspension with automatic reinstatement agreed upon by the parties is an appropriate sanction in In the Matter of Joseph W. Burton, 19S-DI-309.
The court concluded Burton violated Professional Conduct Rules 1.7(a)(2), 8.4(d), and 8.4(e).
“The parties cite Respondent’s substantial experience in the practice of law as a fact in aggravation. In mitigation the parties cite among other things Respondent’s lack of prior discipline, his remorse and cooperation with disciplinary proceedings, and his many years of public service,” the order says.
According to the Roll of Attorneys, this is Burton’s only disciplinary action. Carnahan also faces a disciplinary complaint filed against him, which remains pending in a separate matter, according to a footnote in the per curiam order. “Our opinion today, accepting the conditional agreement reached by the Commission and Respondent, binds only the parties to this case,” the court said in a footnote.
At the conclusion of Burton’s suspension, provided there are no other suspensions then in effect, Burton shall be automatically reinstated to the practice of law, subject to the conditions of Admission and Discipline Rule 23(18)(a). The costs of the proceeding are assessed against him.