Posted on Tue, May. 06, 2003
Myers given reprimand by high court
Private action relates to assistant's videotaping of talk between defendant, his attorney
By RICK BRUNDRETT
The state's top court has issued a private reprimand and a letter of caution to longtime Lexington County prosecutor Donnie Myers for ethical violations in two death penalty cases.
Myers, the 11th Circuit solicitor since 1976, is the highest-ranking prosecutor in recent years to be disciplined by the S.C. Supreme Court.
But the minor punishment imposed by the court won't immediately affect Myers' license to practice law or his job as the solicitor for Lexington, Saluda, Edgefield and McCormick counties. Myers had never been disciplined before.
An ethics panel last year recommended that Myers receive a public reprimand - a slightly tougher sanction - in one of the two cases in question.
Myers, who has won more death penalty cases than any other active state prosecutor, called Monday's ruling a "victory" for him. [Is it a victory to have been found to have engaged in misconduct by the Supreme Court? Only a lawyer can obfusticate a Supreme Court ruling. -CLR].
"It affirms what I've been saying all along," he said. "I didn't engage in any misconduct."
At the same time, Myers criticized the ruling, claiming it likely will cause case backlogs for solicitors statewide. Solicitors now will have to closely monitor all the work of their assistants, from "DUI second (offense) to murder," or face possibly disciplinary charges, he said.
Monday's ruling came almost eight months after the Supreme Court heard the matter and more than two years after an unprecedented hearing by a separate ethics panel. It ends a lengthy investigation by the S.C. Office of Disciplinary Counsel, an arm of the Supreme Court.
Henry Richardson, who heads the office, said Monday he is "glad the case is over" and described Myers as a "dedicated public servant."
Asked about the ruling, Richardson said, "Any comments of a substantive nature, I have made to the hearing panel, in my (legal) brief, and to the court. I don't have anything to add to it."
In a 15-page, unauthored opinion, the Supreme Court unanimously said Myers violated ethical rules by not properly supervising former Deputy Solicitor Fran Humphries, who overheard a private conversation in May 1995 between murder suspect B.J. Quattlebaum and his lawyer.
Conversations between lawyers and their clients generally are considered confidential and are protected by the U.S. Constitution. Lexington County deputies immediately arrested Quattlebaum after the conversation at the sheriff's department, and his lawyers didn't learn of a videotape of the conversation until 27 months later.
The Supreme Court in 2000 reversed Quattlebaum's 1998 death sentence, citing prosecutorial misconduct.
On Friday, Quattlebaum pleaded guilty to murdering William Swartz of Gilbert in exchange for prosecutors' dropping their plans to again seek the death penalty against him. He was sentenced to life in prison.
In Monday's ruling, the Supreme Court said while Myers did not engage in "any direct misconduct," he did not "exercise the appropriate supervisory control" over Humphries.
The court said Myers, who was told by Humphries of the May 1995 conversation about a week after it happened, should have either reported it immediately to Quattlebaum's lawyers, or made sure Humphries did it.
"We hold a solicitor in this state to the highest ethical standards, for his actions determine a criminal's fate," the court said.
The justices noted their ruling was the first time they were applying the concept of a "duty to supervise" to solicitors and public lawyers.
But the justices also said they were imposing a private reprimand in the Quattlebaum matter instead of a more serious public sanction because of a similar ruling in a case involving a civil lawyer.
Humphries, now the deputy solicitor in Horry County, has not been formally charged with any ethical violations. He declined comment Monday.
In Monday's ruling, the Supreme Court also issued a letter of caution to Myers for his handling of a juror matter in the capital murder case of Robert "Bo" Southerland, sentenced to die for the 1989 slaying of Kimberly Quinn of Cayce.
In that case, Myers violated ethical rules by not stopping a
police officer on his juror selection team from calling a prospective juror
to verify that the juror lied on a questionnaire about a home address,
the court said.