Arguments heard in misconduct case against prosecutor Zahnd

The Missouri Supreme Court took up arguments in the misconduct case against Platte County Prosecutor Eric Zahnd. Zahnd’s attorneys and those of the Office of Chief Disciplinary Counsel made oral arguments to the state’s highest court on Tuesday, May 1.

A three-person panel found that Zahnd violated standards of professional conduct in a decision handed down in December of 2017 and recommended a public reprimand for his actions after issuing a press release following the sentencing of Daren Paden, an admitted child molester who received a 50-year sentence in October of 2015. The Missouri Supreme Court will decide what punishment will be doled out in the case or if the case should be dismissed. 

At issue is that Zahnd’s office sent out a press release condemning more than a dozen prominent citizens of the Dearborn area, where Paden lived who wrote letters of support for Paden prior to his sentencing hearing.

“There are certainly a few good people in this community who have offered support to this young victim,” Zahnd said in the original release. “It is shocking, however, that many continue to support a defendant whose guilt was never in doubt. If it takes a village to raise a child, what is a child to do when the village turns its back and supports a confessed child molester?

“It is said that we can be judged by how we treat the least of those among us. It breaks my heart to see pillars of this community — a former county official, a bank president, church leaders, a school board member, current and former school employees — appear to choose the side of a child molester over the child he repeatedly abused.”

The release then went on to name the individuals and titles. Only two specific letters, written by Karlton and Donna Nash — Donna is the former County Collector — and former president of Platte Valley Bank Jerry Hagg, are the subject of the disciplinary proceedings.

 “The press release was false,” Chief Disciplinary Counsel Alan Pratzel said. “If you look at the letters sent in by Mr. Hagg and the Nashes, they do not state a disbelief in the victim. They do not question that Paden committed the crime. They do not state any support for pedophilia or child molestation. Mr. Hagg does not mention that he was a former president of Platte Valley Bank or imply he was writing as a representative of Platte Valley Bank. Ms. Nash doesn’t reference that fact she was a former county collector and Mr. Nash does not reference that he owns Nash Gas, a local business. They are benign in content. However, to then issue the press release in which he basically says they are supporting a child molester over the victim that he repeatedly abused is a false statement given the benign nature of the letters and secondly is simply issued to embarrass the letter writers. It is the sinister mischaracterization that these benign letters into a support of pedophilia and child molestation that in my view violated the rules and held the letter writers up to ridicule by the public – and they were ridiculed. It’s not that he references the letters it’s that it’s a false representation of the substance of those letters. The panel found that it was intentional, he did this for the purpose of embarrassing them and to hold them up to public ridicule.”

Pratzel also took issue with a pre-hearing meeting Zahnd’s office had with letter writers, calling it a bullying tactic and threatening.

Edwin Smith a lawyer from St. Joseph, Mo., argued on behalf of Zahnd in the hearing.

Smith said Zahnd’s pre-hearing meeting was not to threaten but to merely to inform letter writers all of the facts of the case.

“This case is over, this is not a pending case where anyone was going to be prejudiced about what’s in the press release unless you are a letter writer and you don’t want the fact out there that you wrote a letter on behalf of a child sex abuser.” Smith said. “That’s what Mr. Zahnd was trying to get around. He was trying to give them an opportunity to avoid that, not as a threat… Zahnd was trying to tell the truth to these letter writers. If you’ll look at the record these letter writers were aghast, ‘We had no idea that our letters would be part of the public record.’”

According to testimony in the hearing three letters were eventually withdrawn from the case and those names were stricken from the press release. The other letter writers are not subjects of the disciplinary hearing.

“Well you’d think Mr. Zahnd was doing these a favor by subpoenaing them into his office two hours before the hearing on sentencing for the very purpose of threatening them to have them remove their letters,” Pratzel rebutted. “The only letters he’s charged with violating the rules on is Mr. Hagg and the Nashes. If you read them they couldn’t be any more benign than they are. This attorney threatens these people to get them to remove the letters and then issue a press release totally mischaracterizing what those letters say.”

The case will be decided in the coming weeks and the penalty can range from a public reprimand to a suspension of Zahnd’s law license.