Supreme Court suspends attorneys

Steve Korris Nov. 17, 2010, 1:50am

NEW ORLEANS – The Louisiana Supreme Court has suspended attorneys Daniel Stanford and John Stockstill over their representation of a sex crime suspect.

But four of the seven Justices decided to defer the suspensions.

Justices John Weimer, Philip Ciaccio, Jeannette Knoll and Greg Guidry declined to find that their conduct rose to the level of tampering.

"While no actual harm resulted under the instant facts, any action by a lawyer which causes a witness to refrain from voluntarily giving relevant information to another party is ground for grave concern," they wrote on Oct. 19.

Justices Bernette Johnson, Marcus Clark and Jeffrey Victory dissented.

Johnson wrote for herself and Clark that, "In my view, respondents' conduct resulted in actual harm to the system of justice and to the victim."

Victory wrote that he dissented for many of the reasons in Johnson's dissent, adding that he would impose a more stringent sanction.

Stanford and Stockstill represented a sex crime suspect in Lafayette County in 2005.

One of the charges identified the suspect's daughter as his victim.

Sixteen at the time of the alleged crime, she turned 19 as his trial approached.

She cooperated with assistant district attorney Michele Billeaud, who anticipated she would testify against her father.

A month before trial, her aunt told Stockstill her niece didn't want to testify and she wanted to see her father.

A meeting took place, and Stanford presented documents Stockstill had prepared.

One asked the district attorney to dismiss charges and one waived a "no contact" order.

The third invoked privilege for all statements at the meeting without prejudice to any party's legal position.

It declared any statements inadmissible in any legal proceeding, and provided that neither father nor daughter could compel the other to testify about the meeting.

In the event of a breach it provided costs, expenses, liabilities and fees.

Stanford would testify that he didn't explain the documents to the daughter due to his conflict of interest as her father's lawyer.

She indicated she understood the documents, and she signed them.

After Stanford notarized them, daughter and father met privately in a conference room.

The daughter stopped cooperating with Billeaud, who asked Stockstill to explain.

Thirteen days before trial, Stockstill provided Billeaud with copies of two documents but not the confidentiality agreement.

Stockstill and Stanford arranged for local lawyer Chris Richard to represent the daughter for a flat fee of $2,500.

Richard told the daughter she had to appear for trial.

She didn't appear on the first day of trial, and Richard said she was ill.

Father was ill too, according to Stanford and Stockstill, who secured a continuance.

As court adjourned, Billeaud asked Stanford, Stockstill and Richard what happened.

They gave her the confidentiality agreement, said it didn't pertain to the criminal case, and told her they had the daughter sign it to protect them if she filed civil suit.

Billeaud asked for confirmation in a letter and received no response.

Five months later, the father pleaded guilty to four charges and a judge sentenced him to 22 years in prison.

The Office of Disciplinary Counsel brought charges against Stockstill and Stanford, and a hearing committee recommended suspensions for six months, entirely deferred.

Committee members found Stockstill intended to create an impression in the daughter's mind that the agreement barred her from ever discussing the meeting.

They found Stanford facilitated Stockstill's conduct.

They ordered both to take a class in ethics.

The Office of Disciplinary Counsel filed an objection with a disciplinary board, and so did Stockstill and Stanford.

The board took a tough stance, recommending two year suspensions with all but a year and a day deferred.

Suspensions longer than a year require application for reinstatement.

The board's only dissenter found the decision too lenient.

Both sides objected to the Supreme Court, where a majority eased the discipline despite finding the lawyers could have impeded prosecution of a criminal case.

They found nothing in the record indicating Stockstill and Stanford specifically asked the daughter not to cooperate with the district attorney's office.

They wrote that "actions taken in this case were ill conceived and fraught with danger."

"This case should serve as a cautionary tale to all members of the bar and a reminder of the need to act with scrupulous adherence to the ethical rules when dealing with witnesses or unrepresented persons," they wrote.

They ordered both lawyers to spend a day at ethics school.

Johnson wrote in dissent that Stockstill and Stanford "caused a previously cooperative witness to become fearful and unwilling to cooperate with the prosecution, as she had previously done."

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