Attorney Grievance v. Gansler

Decision Date12 November 2003
Docket NumberMisc. AG No. 81
Citation835 A.2d 548,377 Md. 656
CourtMaryland Court of Appeals

Melvin Hirshman, Bar Counsel and John C. Broderick, Asst. Bar Counsel for the Attorney Grievance Commission of Maryland, for petitioner.

Carmen M. Shepard, Washington, DC, for respondent. Argued before BELL, C.J., and ELDRIDGE, WILNER, CATHELL, HARRELL, BATTAGLIA, and ROBERT L. KARWACKI (Retired, specially assigned), JJ.


Respondent Douglas F. Gansler was admitted to the Bar of this Court on December 18, 1989. On November 7, 2002, the Attorney Grievance Commission of Maryland, by Bar Counsel, acting pursuant to Maryland Rule 16-751(a),1 filed a petition for disciplinary action, alleging that Gansler violated the following Maryland Rules of Professional Conduct (hereinafter "MRPC"): MRPC 3.1 (Meritorious Claims and Contentions),2 MRPC 3.6 (Trial Publicity),3 MRPC 3.8 (Special Responsibilities of a Prosecutor),4 MRPC 8.2(a) (Judicial and Legal Officials),5 and MRPC 8.4(a) & (d) (Misconduct).6

The charges arose from numerous extrajudicial statements made by Gansler, who has served as the State's Attorney for Montgomery County since January of 1999. By order dated November 13, 2002 and pursuant to Maryland Rules 16-752(a) and 16-757(c),7 we referred the petition to Judge Julie R. Stevenson of the Circuit Court for Frederick County for an evidentiary hearing and to make findings of fact and conclusions of law. During that hearing, which took place on March 10, 2003, Bar Counsel offered into evidence three videotapes of Gansler's extrajudicial statements and the report of his expert in the case, Professor Abraham Dash. Professor Dash and Professor Lisa Lerman, Gansler's expert, testified at the hearing. Gansler also offered his own testimony as well as that of two Deputy State's Attorneys for Montgomery County.

Judge Stevenson filed a Report and Recommendations on April 29, 2003, in which she presented findings of fact and conclusions of law. Judge Stevenson concluded that Bar Counsel had presented clear and convincing evidence that Gansler, in one instance, had violated MRPC 3.6(a); however, in Judge Stevenson's judgment, the evidence insufficiently supported Bar Counsel's charges that Gansler had violated MRPC 3.6(a) in other instances and had violated other MRPC provisions. Both Bar Counsel and Gansler filed exceptions to Judge Stevenson's findings and conclusions. We overrule Gansler's exception and conclude, further, that he violated MRPC 3.6(a) on more than a single occasion. Accordingly, as to Gansler's extrajudicial statements in which he discussed Cook's confession and his opinion of Cook's and Lucas's guilt, we sustain Bar Counsel's exceptions.

I. Facts

The undisputed facts in this case have been proven by clear and convincing evidence as required by Maryland Rule 16-757(b). Those facts demonstrate that, between 2000 and 2001, Gansler made several extrajudicial statements in connection with his office's prosecution of various well-publicized crimes. A discussion of the circumstances of each of the extrajudicial statements follows.8

A. The Cook Case

In late January of 2001, Sue Wen Stottsmeister was found beaten and unconscious. She had been accosted while jogging along a recreational path located in the Aspen Hill area of Montgomery County. Ms. Stottsmeister ultimately died from the injuries she suffered during that attack.

Nearly six-months later, on June 4, 2001, Albert W. Cook, Jr. allegedly attacked a woman near his home. Witnesses of that attack chased and kept visual contact with Cook until police arrived and arrested him for that incident. While the police were investigating the June 4, 2001 attack, they began to focus their attention on Cook as a suspect in the murder of Stottsmeister. In the afternoon of June 5, 2001, police officials convened the media for a press conference. Before the press conference began, a Washington D.C. television station broadcasted a report that large sneaker footprints had been found at the scene of the murder and that Cook had large feet that might fit sneakers of that size. The press conference then commenced, and the police announced that Cook would be charged with the Stottsmeister murder.

Gansler attended that press conference and made several statements to the media regarding the anticipated prosecution of Cook. He described Cook's confession and the circumstances surrounding his custodial statements to police:

The police were able to obtain a confession completely consistent with [Cook's] constitutional rights, he confessed within just a few hours with incredible details that only the murderer would have known. He was then provided the opportunity to rest and ... he slept, and where he had said was one of the best nights of sleep he had gotten in a long time.
This morning at dawn, he was taken up to the crime scene, video taped by police, and went over in detail by detail every step of what he did to Ms. Stottsmeister this past January.

Gansler further stated that investigators had "boot print matches and that type of thing, or actually in this case the sneaker matches, but we're very confident, obviously more than confident that we have apprehended the right person...."

After the press conference, police charged Cook with the murder of Stottsmeister.9 The statement of charges, which was filed in the District Court of Maryland, Montgomery County, stated: "Cook provided a full and detailed account of the assault and murder of Stottsmeister.... Cook provided details about the murder that would only be known by the perpetrator of the crime."

B. The Lucas Case

While asleep during the middle of the night, Monsignor Thomas Martin Wells, a revered member of the Montgomery County community, was beaten and killed in the rectory at his parish. On June 17, 2000, the Montgomery County police arrested Robert P. Lucas and charged him with the murder of Monsignor Wells. The statement of charges stated that the police had observed Lucas "wearing shoes having a shoe print consistent with the ones found on the crime scene" and that after Lucas was arrested, he "admitted breaking into the church rectory and responsibility for Well's murder."

The police held a press conference on June 18, 2000 to announce the arrest of Lucas and the charges against him. Gansler spoke at the press conference:

The Montgomery County Police ... were able to determine definitively that indeed it was Mr. Lucas who had committed the crime. They were able to do so by following him. They conducted surveillance for over 24 hours. And then when they actually found him, he was wearing a very unique shoe, a very unique boot, and the print of that boot matched the print that was found at the scene of the crime, and then further questioning revealed, in fact, he was the person that had done it.

He offered several remarks about the evidence against Lucas, which he described as "a confession from the perpetrator as well as scientific and forensic evidence to corroborate that confession...." Gansler then expressed his opinion that "we have found the person who committed the crime at this point" and that the case against Lucas "will be a strong case."

Additionally, Gansler commented at the press conference that "it was a violent murder" and that Lucas "has a criminal record which includes residential burglaries and that will be obviously something that will come out later on as well." In fact, Lucas's criminal record came out again later, when Deputy State's Attorney Katherine Winfree discussed it at Lucas's bond hearing on the Monday after the press conference.

C. The Perry Case

James Edward Perry was convicted in the Circuit Court for Montgomery County of first-degree murder and sentenced to death for his role in the 1993 killings of an 8 year-old quadriplegic boy, the boy's mother, and a nurse. Although upheld on direct appeal, in post-conviction proceedings, Perry's conviction was reversed by this Court on December 10, 1999.

On January 4, 2000, the Washington Post ran an article describing Gansler's discussions with family members of the victims of the 1993 murders. The article explained that Gansler had asked the family members whether Perry should be retried or offered a plea agreement. Quoted in the article was Perry's attorney, William Jordan Temple, who commented that he "certainly would look forward" to a plea offer because "anyone faced with the possibility of a death penalty considers an offer of life."

While preparing for Perry's retrial, Gansler made extrajudicial statements that the Gazette Community News published on April 5, 2000. According to the Gazette's report, Gansler had announced that "he has decided to offer [Perry] a plea bargain" and that, "when the offer is formally presented, Perry would have six weeks to make a decision." The article also recounted the events of a hearing in the Perry case, held the day before, at which the court appointed new defense counsel. At that hearing, according to the Gazette, the prosecutor "did not mention the plea bargain offer" and Perry's lawyers "declined to discuss a plea offer or any details about the case."

On or about July 6, 2000, Gansler again appeared in front of television cameras. Responding to questions from the media, Gansler remarked that "the Court of Appeals' decision to reverse the original conviction of Mr. Perry was a completely result oriented opinion." Gansler expressed his view that the "four to three" opinion "was clearly an effort to overturn the death penalty in the Perry case."

D. The Bomb Threat Case

On February 8, 2000, the Montgomery County Journal published an article reporting the dismissal of charges against two Montgomery County teenagers who had been accused of calling bomb threats to Wheaton High School. At the juveniles' trial, the State presented evidence of two telephone calls that purportedly...

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