3.17.16 Admonition [Durham County]

North Carolina State Bar Building Photo Courtesy of the North Carolina State Bar

Christine Mumma was the Executive Director and legal counsel for the North Carolina Center on Actual Innocence (NCCAI) in Durham County.  In 2004, NCCAI looked into the Davis crime case on behalf of Joseph Sledge, who was convicted for the murders of Josephine and Aileen Davis in 1978.  When Sledge was convicted, DNA testing was available, so NCCAI agreed to pursue the location and testing of evidence from the Davis crime scene.  Between 2009 and 2012, several pieces of evidence were tested that excluded Sledge, proving his innocence, so in December 2012 Mumma contacted the District Attorney pursuing post-conviction relief for Sledge.  As part of the investigation of Sledge’s innocence, the DA’s office wanted to look into alternative suspects.  Based on documents from the initial law enforcement investigation file, Mumma believed two possible suspects were the Smith brothers (R. Smith and J. Smith).  As such, Mumma sought to obtain their DNA to be tested, and after failed attempts to get the DA’s office to obtain a sample, Mumma looked into it and discovered that the Smith brothers had a maternal sister whose DNA could sufficiently link the Smith brothers to the crime.

On October 23, 2013, Mumma and a NCCAI employee went to the sister’s house to obtain a DNA sample, but the sister refused to voluntarily give up a sample.  Mumma inadvertently took a half-empty water bottle with her when she left the sister’s home. Although Mumma later realized the water bottle was not hers, she decided to take it and have it tested for DNA.  Mumma was informed a few weeks later that the DNA was inconsistent with the evidence obtained from the Davis crime scene.  Mumma later contacted the sister to find out if anyone not related to the Smith brothers could have used the tested water bottle, but did not inform her that Mumma had taken the bottle.  Mumma submitted to the DA that she had DNA from a water bottle tested, and submitted memos of her interactions with the sister.

Notwithstanding the DNA evidence not matching the Smith brothers, in December 2014, a hearing was held which found there was sufficient evidence of factual innocence to merit judicial review for Sledge.  On January 23, 2015, Sledge was exonerated.  The Hearing Panel at the NC State Bar found that by retaining the water bottle, albeit inadvertently at first, then having it tested for DNA was a violation of the legal rights of a third person, violating Rule 4.4(a).  Consequently, Mumma’s actions were also a violation of Rule 8.4(c) (dishonest conduct) and Rule 8.4(d) (conduct prejudicial to the administration of justice).  For these reasons, the State Bar imposed an admonition, which is the least serious form of discipline authorized.

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