Last week I wrote a letter to the Arkansas Supreme Court’s Committee of Professional Conduct, the body that is supposed to make sure that Arkansas attorneys are practicing law as they should. I asked the committee to investigate whether it was proper for Arkansas Attorney General Dustin McDaniel to advocate on behalf of convictions that were improperly obtained.
I specifically cited evidence of serious juror misconduct in the trial of Damien Echols and Jason Baldwin. In the three years that that evidence has been before Arkansas courts, it has not been refuted. So I asked the committee to investigate the propriety of pressing for an execution, and the continuation of two life sentences, in the face of such important evidence.
Yesterday, I received a form-letter response from the committee acknowledging receipt of my “grievance.” The letter’s second paragraph advised me that “all information” I had submitted to the committee was “confidential.”
The letter further warned, in capitalized, bold-face type: “ANYONE VIOLATING THIS CONFIDENTIALITY MAY BE FOUND TO BE IN CONTEMPT OF THE COURT AND PUNISHED BY FINE OR JAIL. SPECIFICALLY THIS MEANS YOU ARE PROHIBITED FROM RELEASING ANY INFORMATION OR DOCUMENTS ABOUT YOUR COMPLAINT FILED WITH THIS OFFICE TO ANYONE, INCLUDING THE NEWS MEDIA.”
This means that I was in contempt of the Arkansas Supreme Court when I published my letter on this site last week. I supposed that Arkansas Times editor Max Brantley became complicit in my alleged crime when he posted a link to my letter on the paper’s Arkansas Blog.
Last evening, I guess my misdeed rose to the level of a veritable crime spree when I spoke to a reporter for the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette about my complaint. In willful violation of the letter’s warning, I did indeed speak with a member of the news media about information I had submitted to the committee.
This morning, the paper carried an article by reporter Alison Sider about my complaint. She reported that McDaniel declined to comment on it and that the committee’s executive director, Stark Ligon, said that “Leveritt could be held in contempt of court for publicizing the letter.”
As to the warning I’d received from the committee, Sider wrote: “Leveritt said the contempt notice was a ‘threat,’ and said she would assert her constitutional right to freedom of speech.”
[private]So far, I have not been charged with a crime. However, this morning one supporter of the West Memphis Three did email me his opinion that my complaint against McDaniel was “frivolous” and “damaging” to serious attempts to have these wrongful convictions overturned.” Tony Kelpine suggested I wage my battles “with the pen…not with legal filings.”
We ended up having a good exchange. I told him that the only way my action could be seen as damaging to the men’s cases would be if we presume that judges and the attorney general will react out of spite; that is, take out their anger at me on the West Memphis Three. If that’s the level of jurisprudence we expect, I wrote, we’re in deeper trouble here than we imagined.
I also explained that I intended to press for clarification about the role of the attorney general because I want to know, as I told the reporter: “Is it his duty to support a verdict in a trial even if it’s illegally obtained, just because the state won? Or is his obligation higher than that?”
Imagine. If McDaniel viewed his job as trying to assure a high quality of justice in this state, he could have dropped his opposition to new trials as soon as the juror misconduct evidence was presented—and he saw he could not dispute it. That single act could have spared the West Memphis Three at least three years of their prison ordeal.
I also think my complaint is worth pursuing because, it appears, the supreme court attempts to stifle the speech, not only of attorneys in Arkansas, but even of the state’s non-lawyer citizens. There is a reason that until recently, no Arkansas attorney who was not involved in the defense of the West Memphis Three voiced a critical word about the men’s cases. The attorneys know they could be punished—just as the supreme court’s committee advised me I may be.
It’s one thing for the court to threaten the attorneys it licenses. It’s another for the court to threaten an individual citizen merely because she has the audacity to write out a complaint to a public agency and then to speak of that complaint in public. I don’t think it’s frivolous to challenge that.
Arkansas’s legal system has nurtured a culture of secrecy and intimidation—with, of all institutions, the supreme court as its enforcer. This deeply rooted culture is, I believe, why people in Arkansas have been so shy about raising their voices regarding the West Memphis case, while people everywhere else have been hollering.
But what is the court’s basis for its bold-faced threat? What law requires me—a lay person—to be silent? What law forbids me to say out loud what I have written to a public office in a letter? What law bars any ordinary citizen from talking to the news media?
And most important: Does the Arkansas Supreme Court believe the Bill of Rights applies to Arkansas citizens?
The prosecutors of the West Memphis Three exploited the defendants’ right to free expression when they were tried for murder. Books, clothing, music, personal writings—all were used in court to convince juries to convict the men.
For years, the state has insisted that the trials were sound and that Echols, Baldwin and Misskelley all should die in prison. So far, no Arkansas court has found a single thing wrong with what occurred at their trials. The state has acted with impunity.
But let one ordinary citizen write a letter questioning a public official’s role—and dare to write or speak about it—and the judicial hammer is raised. I am warned that I may be held in contempt of court “and punished by fine or jail.”
That is a bluff. It is baloney. And it is a shame. Any court that so disregards the rights of citizens—both to justice and to free speech—can itself be held in contempt.[/private]