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Racial Justice Act Case Attorneys Admonished But Not Further Disciplined for Actions in Presenting Misleading Affidavits

Attorneys involved in the challenge to Marcus Robinson’s death sentence have been reprimanded for their actions in the representation of their client due to misleading affidavits.

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The North Carolina State Bar ruled that Gretchen Engel, an attorney who participated in the first case heard under the Racial Justice Act, did not violate the Rules of Processional Conduct for attorneys.  A complaint was filed anonymously against Engel charging her with providing inaccurate information to the judge presiding over the case.  The disciplinary panel of the State Bar found that Engel did not violate the Rules of Professional Conduct in her conduct, but did find that there was a minor violation of the Rules of Professional conduct and issued an admonition for her colleague, Cassandra Stubbs, in this matter.

In the Robinson case, in attempts to show racial bias, Engel, Stubbs, and other attorneys gathered affidavits from African American prospective jurors who were excluded from the jury

The case in which Engel participated was the Marcus Robinson caseRobinson’s death sentence was substituted in 2012.  The judge presiding over the hearing, Judge Greg Weeks, determined that in 1994, when the murder trial was conducted, Robinson’s race played a factor in how the jurors in his case were selected.  The Racial Justice Act permitted death row inmates to challenge their sentences using statistical evidence to show racial bas during their trials.  While the Racial Justice Act was repealed in 2013 by the State Legislature, and signed by Governor Pat McCrory, it permitted many inmates to challenge their sentences.

In the Robinson case, in attempts to show racial bias, Engel, Stubbs, and other attorneys gathered affidavits from African American prospective jurors who were excluded from the jury.  However, the State Bar found that this information contained in the two affidavits from the prospective African American jurors did not align with other evidence in the case, and rather than attempting to correct the differing information prior to submission as evidence, Engel presented the evidence anyway.

Judge Weeks stated that the affidavits played no role in his decision to overturn the death sentence.  Similarly, in his order, he noted inaccuracies in the prosecution’s case that had not been brought for disciplinary action before the State Bar.

The State Bar gave the lowest discipline they could under the situation by admonishing Stubbs.  The State Bar did not issue any discipline against Engel.

Anonymous complaints were filed against two attorneys, Gretchen Engel and Cassandra Stubbs, in relation to the Racial Justice Act case.  The complaints against Cassandra Stubbs and Gretchen Engel both called for action to be taken against Stubbs, that she be required to pay administrative fees and costs associated with the proceeding, and for any such other relief.  The complaint alleges that by failing to ensure the attorneys and staff followed up regarding the discrepancies in his interview and in the trial transcript, she failed to act with reasonable diligence in representing her client, in violation of Rule 1.3 of the Rules of Professional Conduct.  Further, the complaint alleges that in failing to ensure the affidavits contained accurate information and could be verified with the trial transcript, she failed to act with reasonable diligence in representing her client, in violation of Rule 1.3, and also engaged in conduct prejudicial to the administration of justice, in violation of Rule 8.4(d).

Rule 1.3 states that a lawyer shall act with reasonable diligence and promptness while representing his or her client.  The Rule further states that conduct that is sufficient to warrant professional discipline is usually characterized by an element of intent manifested when the lawyer knowingly or recklessly disregards his or her obligations, and a breach of the duty of diligence occurs when the lawyer consistently fails to carry out his or her obligations for the client.

Rule 8.4 states that it shall be misconduct for a lawyer to engage in conduct prejudicial to the administration of justice.  It is not required that a showing of actual prejudice to the administration of justice be given.

The State Bar gave the lowest discipline they could under the situation by admonishing Stubbs.  The State Bar did not issue any discipline against Engel. We are waiting for the published disciplinary orders from the State Bar to see their detailed reasoning on their decisions.

 

Regan Gatlin, Ethics Editor
About Regan Gatlin, Ethics Editor (42 Articles)
Regan Gatlin is a 2016 graduate and served as the Ethics Editor for the Campbell Law Observer for the 2015-2016 academic year. Regan graduated from North Carolina State University in 2013 with a Bachelor of Arts in Political Science and a minor in Sociology. Regan has previously clerked for the Insurance Section of the North Carolina Department of Justice, The General Counsel of The Select Group, and Safran Law Offices. During her experiences clerking, she gained civil litigation and research experience in the areas of insurance, construction law, labor and employment, and compliance. She also competed on a Campbell Law Trial Team in the Buffalo-Niagara Mock Trial Competition and the American Association for Justice (AAJ) Mock Trial Competition. Regan is from Smithfield, North Carolina.
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