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County prosecutor censured for statements made to the press

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County prosecutor censured for statements made to the press

  • The Maryland Court of Appeals reprimanded a county prosecutor for pretrial statements he made to the press, establishing the state’s first legal precedent restricting out-of-court pretrial speech of attorneys.

Nov. 20, 2003 — The Maryland Court of Appeals, the state’s highest court, censured a county prosecutor last week for pretrial statements he made to the press, in a ruling that many legal experts say could substantially limit the amount of information attorneys make public before trial.

The decision marks the first time a prosecutor has been formally and publicly reprimanded in Maryland, according to the Maryland Attorney Grievance Commission, and establishes the state’s first legal precedent restricting the out-of-court pretrial speech of attorneys.

The high court identified three separate murder cases dating back to 2000 in which Douglas Gansler, the state’s attorney for Montgomery County, made “extrajudicial” statements to the press that violated professional standards. The court ruled Nov. 12 that Gansler committed professional misconduct by discussing a defendant’s confession and plea deal to the press, and by stating his opinions regarding the guilt of two other defendants.

The seven-judge panel ruled that Gansler’s statements “dangerously jeopardize the principles of our system of criminal justice.”

The Maryland Attorney Grievance Commission filed the petition against Gansler, alleging that his statements violated the state’s Rules of Professional Conduct. The commission said Gansler’s statements potentially compromised the defendants’ right to a fair trial.

However, Mary Jean Craig, a media lawyer in Towson, Md., said the court’s decision “might have a chilling effect” on the availability of information before trials.

“Certainly, many attorneys are going to read this decision and err on the side of caution the next time they speak with a member of the press,” she said.

Gansler, who was first elected by county residents in 1998, defended his actions in an interview with The Washington Post after the ruling was announced.

“No one really believes that a publicly elected official cannot publicly state that which is public — but that’s what the opinion is saying,” Gansler said. “My view is that I have a legal, moral and ethical obligation to inform the public about what’s going on in the criminal justice system.”

Maryland has broad rules governing trial publicity. Attorneys are restricted from divulging any information outside of court that has a “substantial likelihood of materially prejudicing” a trial. The rules also bar disclosure of confessions to the press, and prohibit attorneys from giving “any opinion regarding the guilt or innocence of a defendant.” However, the rules do have “safe harbor” exemptions, which permit attorneys to discuss information if it’s already contained in a public record.

Gansler argued that his statements fell under the public record exemption and did not compromise the defendants’ right to a fair trial.

The censure carries no material consequences. Gansler will continue in his role as state’s attorney and will not face any more disciplinary hearings relating to the case.

(Attorney Grievance Commission of Maryland v. Gansler) MC

© 2003 The Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press

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