A three-judge panel last week exonerated York County Commonwealth’s Attorney Eileen Addison, dismissing charges that she improperly coached a witness in a capital murder case.
Emerging from the tangled case of Darryl Atkins, the ethics charges against Addison and her former assistant, Cathy E. Krinick, were a focal point for Virginia criminal defense attorneys who claim improper conduct by prosecutors is often overlooked by Virginia State Bar officials.
Atkins was convicted of capital murder and sentenced to death in 1998. His case twice went to the U.S. Supreme Court and produced the landmark 2002 holding that a mentally retarded defendant cannot be subject to the death penalty. Allegations about the prosecutors’ interview session with Atkins’ co-defendant, William Jones, later led a circuit judge to commute Atkins’ sentence to life in prison.
One of Jones’ attorneys, Leslie P. Smith of Hampton, broke years of silence with his claim that prosecutors staged an off-the-record reenactment of the murder to help Jones present testimony that would not conflict with physical evidence from the crime scene.
Addison denied any improper witness coaching and claimed the VSB was making her a scapegoat amid complaints of ineffective prosecutor discipline.
Despite the result in the Addison hearing, Krinick apparently still faces ethics charges. Her case is scheduled for a three-judge hearing beginning Aug. 31 in Williamsburg.
The three judges were decisive in announcing that they found no evidence to support the charges of wrongdoing by Addison, according to reports from the hearing. The proceedings – which had been set for three days – concluded after only one day as the judges granted a motion to dismiss made by Addison’s lawyer, Rodney G. Leffler.
Presiding was Richmond Circuit Judge Richard D. Taylor Jr. The other judges were Senior Virginia Court of Appeals Judge Jean Harrison Clements and retired Essex County Circuit Judge Joseph E. Spruill Jr.
The case was prosecuted by two assistant bar counsel, Marian L. Beckett and M. Brent Saunders.
Leffler said the case was unfounded. “I don’t think the charges ever should have been brought,” he said. Addison did not return a call for comment.
Virginia State Bar Counsel Edward L. Davis pointed out the charges were certified by a subcommittee of the Sixth District Committee. He said all relevant documents and briefs were provided to the three judges in advance of the hearing. “I’m confident the court heard every bit of evidence the bar had to present. We respect their decision,” he said.
Corinne J. Magee of McLean, president of the Virginia Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers, acknowledged the judges’ decision was proper given the case presented. Magee had been among those defense lawyers who pointed to the Atkins incident as an example of prosecutorial misconduct that went unpunished.
Magee, who attended the hearing, said she was disappointed in the presentation of the VSB lawyers.
Magee said the VSB lawyers allowed the inquiry to focus on whether Jones’ later court testimony was truthful, rather than on whether the prosecutors withheld potential impeachment evidence. “The court didn’t have any choice but the grant the motion to dismiss,” Magee said. She noted the bar lawyers called Addison as part of their case, thereby allowing Leffler to cross-examine his own client to elicit favorable testimony.
Magee said defense lawyers should continue to point out perceived misconduct by prosecutors.
“We’re just going to have to keep filling out complaints when the incidents occur,” she said.
Davis said the VSB will continue to seek discipline when appropriate. “We have a job to do. If there’s misconduct by an attorney, we have an obligation to investigate and to prosecute if warranted,” he said.