For 10 years, Leslie P. Smith, a Virginia lawyer, reluctantly kept a secret because the authorities on legal ethics told him he had no choice, even though his information could save the life of a man on death row, one whose case had led to a landmark Supreme Court decision.
Mr. Smith believed that prosecutors had committed brazen misconduct by coaching a witness and hiding it from the defense, but the Virginia State Bar said he was bound by legal ethics rules not to bring up the matter. He shared his qualms and pangs of conscience with only one man, Timothy G. Clancy, who had worked on the case with him.
“Clancy and I, when we were alone together, would reminisce about this and more or less renew our vows of silence,” Mr. Smith told a judge last month. “We felt that there was nothing that could be done.”
But the situation changed last year, when Mr. Smith took one more run at the state bar’s ethics counsel. “I was upset by the conduct of the prosecutor,” Mr. Smith wrote in an anguished letter, “and the situation has bothered me ever since.”
Reversing course, the bar told Mr. Smith he could now talk, and he did. His testimony caused a state court judge in
, to commute the death sentence of Daryl R. Atkins to life on Thursday, citing prosecutorial misconduct. Yorktown, Va.
And I have to paste this next bit in the hope that the most improbably named law professor in the country gets quoted again sometime:
Ronald D. Rotunda, who teaches legal ethics at
George Mason University, said the rules in were murky about what lawyers in Mr. Smith’s position could do. But if the bar’s initial advice was correct, Professor Rotunda added, “there is something wrong about the law, particularly if you are talking about execution or years in prison.” Virginia
I would have to agree.