Mumma case response: If we’re going to punish lawyers for misconduct, let’s really do so

Kristin Collins of the Center for Death Penalty Litigation authored the following post for the NC Center for Alternatives to the Death Penalty blog today:

Let’s punish lawyers who put innocent people in prison, instead of those who free them

Chris Mumma with Joseph Sledge on the day of his exoneration.

Chris Mumma with Joseph Sledge on the day of his exoneration.

Joseph Sledge spent 37 years in prison for a crime he didn’t commit. At his trial, the state paid a lying snitch to testify against him. While he was in prison, the district attorney opposed the DNA testing that would eventually prove Sledge’s innocence. And when the long-delayed tests showed Sledge wasn’t the culprit, the state waited another two years to release him from prison.

Now that Sledge is finally free, the only person being punished is the lawyer who fought to prove his innocence, Chris Mumma. On Thursday, the State Bar found that Mumma violated professional ethics by testing a water bottle for DNA without permission from its owner — all in an attempt to gain an innocent man his freedom against long odds. (The test of the water bottle was inconclusive and had no impact on the final outcome.)

We can’t say it better than the N&O’s Barry Saunders:

“It seems like something out of a dystopian, Twilight Zone world that the woman whose efforts rectified a three-decade miscarriage of justice is the only person being held accountable.”

More disturbing, Jon David, the Bladen County district attorney who fought to keep Sledge behind bars, was involved in filing the bar complaint against Mumma. It appeared to be payback for her exposing the many errors in Sledge’s case to the media. The woman from whom the bottle was taken has strongly supported Mumma and her work to free Sledge, and did not want her to be punished.

Again and again, the prosecutors and cops who put innocent people in prison — even send them to death row — face no consequences, even when their misconduct is glaring.

Look at Henry McCollum and Leon Brown, who were sentenced to death and served 30 years for a murder they didn’t commit. There has been no punishment for the law enforcement officers, one of whom is now sheriff, who persuaded two intellectually disabled teenagers to sign false confessions.

Nor were there any ethics charges filed against the the district attorney, Joe Freeman Britt, who sent them to death row with thin evidence and before completing an investigation into another suspect — and then bragged about his listing in the Guinness Book of World Records as the “deadliest prosecutor in America.” After DNA proved McCollum and Brown innocent and implicated another man, Britt, now retired, called the current DA weak for agreeing to their release.

In all the cases where Mumma has freed innocent people, no prosecutor has ever faced charges. In addition to Sledge, exonorees Willie Grimes, Larry Lamb, Dwayne Dail, and Greg Taylor attended every day of Mumma’s hearing. Wouldn’t they rather have watched the State Bar doing something, anything, to ensure that prosecutors can no longer imprison innocent people with impunity?

Instead, the State Bar sent a message that lawyers who expose the system’s misdeeds could be subject to retribution.

District Attorney Jon David acknowledged during Mumma’s hearing that the court system is “set up to show guilt, not to prove innocence.” This week’s events show us just how difficult the job of proving innocence can be in North Carolina.


  1. Lew Powell

    January 16, 2016 at 11:34 am

    Well said — thank you. Prosecutorial excess is only beginning to receive the attention it deserves, both nationally and in North Carolina. The shameful harassment of Christine Mumma only highlights the disparity between the treatment of such righteous defenders of the law and the arrogant, callous, vindictive prosecutors they call to account….

  2. Tony D

    January 18, 2016 at 8:15 am

    The system should be set up to show the truth…be it guilty or not guilty…That is the purpose of justice….The truth.

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