Thursday, December 20, 2007

Lawyer Deserves Disbarment

December 20, 2007 Hartford Courant Editorial:

Lawyers have a duty to protect their clients' interests — but not by destroying evidence of child pornography, as attorney Philip D. Russell of Greenwich did. For that, he must be disbarred.

Mr. Russell was charged February with obstructing justice by smashing a laptop computer onto which a choirmaster for a Greenwich church had downloaded child pornography.

An employee of the church had discovered the pornography on Robert Tate's laptop last fall, and church officials quickly hired Mr. Russell as their attorney. Unaware that Mr. Tate was under investigation by the FBI, Mr. Russell referred him to a defense lawyer, then destroyed the laptop without reporting what was on it, to avoid a scandal

The failure to report the find gave Mr. Tate time to remove his collection of child pornography from his apartment, a prosecutor said. Eventually, the FBI found that Mr. Tate had traveled to the Philippines and Thailand to have sex with young boys. "I've never seen such an extensive history of child abuse," said U.S. District Court Judge Alan H. Nevas.

Mr. Russell said he couldn't be guilty of obstructing the investigation because he didn't know about it. The Connecticut Criminal Defense Lawyers Association took his side, arguing that he would have violated his confidential relationship with his client if he had turned the computer over to authorities.

But he went way beyond representing his client when he took a sledgehammer to the computer that is believed to have held more than 2,000 images of naked boys. Mr. Russell had sworn under the Connecticut attorney's oath to "inform the court of any dishonesty of which you have knowledge."

Christ Church Greenwich was evidently only too happy to avoid the scandal. It should have relied on conscience more than legal advice and turned to law enforcement officials rather than a lawyer.

Mr. Russell pleaded guilty Monday to a reduced charge of failing to report a crime. U.S. District Judge Alan H. Nevas was kind in sentencing him to six months of home confinement rather than prison. Mr. Russell gave up his law license temporarily in an agreement with the judicial branch's Statewide Grievance Committee. The committee will now decide whether he should be disbarred.

Considering the evidence he destroyed, he should be. He delayed the investigation of a man with such an extensive history of child sexual abuse that Judge Nevas said "it turns your stomach."

Lawyers have obligations to their clients, but they also have an obligation not to put more children at risk by crushing evidence of a heinous crime.

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