The Virginia State Bar is investigating a complaint of possible misconduct by York- Poquoson Commonwealth's Attorney Eileen Addison during the prosecution of former murder suspect Kwaume Edwards.
Shannon Edwards, Kwaume's mother, has written a letter requesting that the Bar investigate whether Addison and Douglas Walter, an attorney for a co-defendant in her son's case, withheld information from her son's defense attorney. Michael Morchower, the attorney who represented Kwaume Edwards, said he hand-delivered the letter and supporting materials to the Bar Wednesday.
The Virginia State Bar is the state agency that regulates lawyers. It reviews and investigates all complaints it receives regarding attorney misconduct.
The Edwards case is one of two murder prosecutions in which defense attorneys have recently accused Addison of not playing fair. Last month, a York County judge commuted the death sentence of longtime death row inmate Daryl Atkins after finding that Addison and a former assistant failed to disclose some information to defense attorneys during Atkins' 1998 capital murder trial.
Kwaume Edwards, 18, was initially convicted of second-degree murder in April 2007 for the May 2006 shooting death of 29-year-old Michael Tyler, but was granted a new trial after allegations that co-defendant Carlos Chapman lied on the witness stand and prosecutors withheld information regarding plea negotiations with Chapman.
Chapman - who was in the car with Kwaume Edwards the day Tyler was shot - was the prosecution's key witness against the teen and testified in the 2007 trial that he had no idea how his testimony would affect his own case. A week later, Chapman took a plea agreement that reduced a murder charge to misdemeanor accessory charges. He was given a two-year sentence.
Letters between Chapman and his attorney, Douglas Walter, later showed that a plea offer had been discussed well before Kwaume Edwards' trial. Because Chapman had essentially lied on the witness stand, prosecutors could not use him at the second trial, and the murder and firearms charges against Kwaume Edwards were dismissed in November 2007.
In her letter, Shannon Edwards told the Bar that her son could have been sentenced to 50 years in prison, and alleged that Addison and Walter tried to conceal the plea offers to protect Chapman's credibility and her son's conviction.
"It was clear that Mrs. Addison and Mr. Walter knew that Mr. Chapman was lying on the witness stand and both of them tried to cover it up," she wrote.
Several messages left for Addison were not answered. A call to Walter Friday was also unreturned.
Morchower argued to the court that Addison's failure to disclose the plea offers violated Brady v. Maryland - a U.S. Supreme Court decision that says prosecutors must provide the defense with any information that could be beneficial to their case.
With Shannon Edwards' formal complaint, a Bar review begins to determine if that conduct also violates the Virginia Rules of Professional Conduct for attorneys. If an attorney is found to have violated the rules, he or she faces anything from a reprimand to disbarment, depending on the severity of the misconduct.
In addition to the Edwards' complaint, Addison and former York prosecutor Cathy Krinick could also potentially face disciplinary action stemming from the Atkins capital murder case. Atkins, of Hampton, was convicted and sentenced to death almost 10 years ago for the August 1996 killing of 21-year-old Langley Airman Eric Nesbitt.
Hampton attorney Leslie Smith, who represented Atkins' co-defendant William Jones, testified at a motions hearing in December that during a 1997 interview with Jones prosecutors turned off a tape recorder and coaxed him to make his story line up better with forensic evidence in the case. York-Poquoson Circuit Judge Prentis Smiley found last month that such information was never disclosed to Atkins' attorneys during his 1998 trial, and that Addison and Krinick had violated Brady v. Maryland.
College of William and Mary law professor Jim Moliterno said the standards for a Brady violation match up pretty well with the Bar's legal ethics rules requiring disclosure of evidence.
"Prosecutors, especially in death cases, really need to be scrupulously fair," he said. "Conduct that harms the defense in a way that the (U.S.) Supreme Court has said you can't harm the defense...that's a pretty serious matter."
Moliterno said the Bar is already likely aware of the violation because of the high-profile nature of the Atkins case, and "one would fully expect that the state Bar would engage in some investigation."
Anyone - including parties to a case, attorneys, judges and ordinary citizens - can file a complaint with the Bar, but misconduct investigations are kept confidential until formal "charges" against an attorney have been sent to a district committee or the disciplinary board, Bar Counsel George Chabalewski said. Currently, both Addision and Krinick are listed as active attorneys in good standing with the Bar.
So far, no parties or attorneys involved with the Atkins' case have confirmed filing a formal Bar complaint.
Even if the misconduct is reported, as in Edwards' case, the Bar has wide latitude. Moliterno said there will likely be sharp divisions among those in the legal profession as to what is an appropriate punishment.
"It's very rare for a prosecutor to be disciplined by the bar for a Brady violation," he said.
Any complaint made to the Virginia State Bar is first investigated by a bar attorney, who sends a copy of the complaint to the accused lawyer and requests a written response, Bar Counsel George Chabalewski explained.
If a response is received, that is sent to the complainant for comment. This preliminary investigation usually takes about 60 days, after which the complaint is either dismissed or referred for further investigation.
If the staff attorney determines a complaint has merit, an investigator is assigned to review documents and conduct interviews relevant to the case, Chabalewski said. The investigator writes a report, which is reviewed by a staff attorney and sent with a recommendation to a subcommittee made up of two lawyers and one layperson.
The subcommittee can dismiss the complaint if there is not enough evidence, or schedule it for an evidentiary hearing.
The subcommittee also decides the severity of the violation, Chabalewski said, issuing less-serious charges of misconduct that go to a district committee, or a more-serious certification that goes to the bar's disciplinary board.
After an evidentiary hearing is held, the district committee decides if an ethics rule has been violated and either dismisses the case or issues a reprimand for the misconduct. In serious cases, the bar's disciplinary board has the power to suspend an attorney's license for up to five years or permanently disbar an attorney, Chabalewski said.
At either level, the accused attorney may also request that his or her case be heard before a three-judge panel, and accused attorneys ultimately have the right to appeal to the Virginia Supreme Court, he said.