I began my legal career as a prosecutor. I literally have tried hundreds of bench and jury trials, including homicides and rapes. There would be times when the Attorney General would prosecute a case because of a conflict, but never have I heard of the Office of Disciplinary Counsel essentially prosecuting a criminal case in order to disbar an attorney.
Until this year.
In re Charles Williams, 11-1457 (La. 1/24/12), 2012 WL 206401 involved an undisputed fact that on Thanksgiving Day, 2004, Williams shot and killed Larry Broome, another Louisiana lawyer, with whom he had been friends for some thirty-five years.
The shooting occurred in the course of an altercation in the parking lot of the Club Nexus bar in Benton, Louisiana. Respondent consistently maintained that he acted in self defense.
Williams was arrested following the shooting and charged with manslaughter.
On May 9, 2006, Williams pleaded guilty as charged. Pursuant to a plea agreement, he was sentenced to serve ten years at hard labor, suspended, and placed on active probation for three years with special conditions. However, unbeknownst to the parties involved in the plea deal, the trial judge lacked the authority to suspend respondent’s sentence and to place him on probation.
Thereafter, Williams appealed the legality of his sentence. In February 2009, the Supreme Court vacated the sentence and remanded the matter to allow respondent the opportunity to withdraw his guilty plea and to plead anew. Upon remand, Williams pleaded not guilty, and the Bossier Parish District Attorney’s Office ultimately declined to prosecute the matter any further.
In July 2007, the Office of Disciplinary Counsel (“ODC”) filed formal charges against Mr. Williams, alleging he committed a criminal act in violation of Rule 8.4(b) (commission of a criminal act that reflects adversely on the lawyer’s honesty, trustworthiness, or fitness as a lawyer).
During the disciplinary proceedings, Mr. Williams took the position that the shooting was justified because he reasonably believed he was in imminent danger of losing his life or receiving great bodily harm, and that killing the victim was necessary to save himself.
Therefore, during the hearing, the ODC was required to establish that Mr. Williams did not act in self-defense when he shot Mr. Broome, and that the shooting was unjustified.
The hearing committee, which heard the testimony, made a factual finding that Williams did not act in self-defense. In reaching this conclusion, the committee made the following factual determinations:
(1) William’s version of the altercation with Mr. Broome was not corroborated by the testimony of the witnesses;
(2) the witnesses heard Mr. Broome tell Williams that he should collect his belongings and leave the premises, which suggests Mr. Broome was not the aggressor; and
(3) the police officer who investigated the shooting did not observe any injuries to William’s face or hands, and he did not seek medical treatment after the incident.
Based upon these facts, the committee concluded that he was not acting in self- defense when he shot Mr. Broome. The Board and the Supreme Court agreed with the Committee that the undisputed facts established that respondent shot and killed the victim.
The Court noted that in a disciplinary proceeding against an attorney who has been convicted of a crime, the attorney is conclusively presumed to be guilty of the crime. In such cases, the ODC bears no additional burden to prove the attorney’s criminal conduct; the sole issue to be determined is whether the crime warrants discipline and, if so, the extent thereof. Id.
The fact that an attorney, like Mr. Williams, has not been convicted of a crime does not preclude the ODC from proving the attorney committed a criminal act in violation of Code of Ethics, however, in such cases, the ODC is not entitled to the benefit of the presumption and must instead bear the burden of proving by clear and convincing evidence that the attorney committed a criminal act.
The Court noted:
“We generally defer to the factual findings of the hearing committee members who act as the eyes and ears of this court. This standard of review is not dissimilar from the standard applied in civil cases, where it is well settled that when the findings are based on determinations regarding the credibility of witnesses, the manifest error – clearly wrong standard demands great deference to the find[ers] of fact, for only the factfinder is cognizant of the variations in demeanor and tone of voice that bear so heavily on the listener’s understanding and belief in what is said.”
The Court agreed with the committee’s factual determinations, specifically that William’s account of the altercation, in which he characterized the victim as the aggressor, was not supported by the testimony of other witnesses or by the physical evidence.
Accordingly, the Court found that the ODC met its burden of proving that Williams committed a criminal act when he shot and killed the victim, in violation of Rule 8.4(b) of the Rules of Professional Conduct.
The Court noted that as an aggravating factor, Mr. Williams had an extensive disciplinary background, and was in fact suspended from the practice law at the time they considered his current misconduct. They determined that although disbarment was the appropriate baseline sanction to apply, that Guideline 94 was applicable and determined that Mr. Williams should be permanently disbarred form the practice law.
The Court determined that both elements of Guideline were satisfied in that Mr. William’s violation of Rule 8.4(b) was unquestionably serious attorney misconduct and this misconduct was preceded by his suspensions in 1986 and 2003 for prior instances of serious attorney misconduct.
The Court noted, “The facts of the instant case, considered together with respondent’s disciplinary history, evidence a convincing lack of character and moral fitness on respondent’s behalf. To maintain the integrity of the profession and to protect the public, we must permanently disbar respondent.”
Mr. Williams is not serving time in jail. He is not a convicted felon, but he has been disbarred.
Strange. At least he is not practicing law.