Eric Zahnd never wavers on one key aspect of his job. Platte County’s longtime prosecuting attorney always — always — talks about the need to protect victims of crime.
For one of his recent efforts to fulfill that promise, Zahnd faces serious charges.
Last week, two days of testimony were heard in front of a disciplinary panel for the Office of Chief Disciplinary Counsel (OCDC) at Platte City City Hall. John O’Connor, a local criminal defense attorney, has accused Zahnd of an ethics violation, which the OCDC previously ruled substantial enough to invoke the hearing.
Zahnd faces the possibility of a reprimand, suspension of law license or even disbarring in the matter.
The controversy stems from what appears to be years of back and forth tension between Zahnd’s office and O’Connor, who has represented some high-profiled clients in Platte County. This list includes his current role as defense attorney for accused murderer Grayden Denham.
O’Connor served as counsel for Darren Paden, a Dearborn, Mo. man who pleaded guilty in late 2015 to two felony counts of statutory sodomy. He received two consecutive 25-year terms at sentencing.
The Platte County Prosecutor’s Office and O’Connor disagree with how some character witnesses in the case were treated. Paden’s attorney argues that Zahnd intimidated some of those who wrote letters in support of Paden, who admitted to his crimes in interviews with law enforcement during the investigation.
This included Zahnd contacting some of the witnesses about their letters prior to sentencing and ultimately putting their names in a press release sent to area media. Some were subpoenaed to appear. The Citizen did not run the names at the time — and still hasn’t — but all are a matter of public record and have appeared in other publications.
Due to the detail, the release did strike me as odd at the time, as I’ve stated before.
“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,” Zahnd was quoted as saying in the press release.
The more I’ve investigated, the more I realize there’s nothing normal about the cases of Paden and Denham, nor the current ethical complaint Zahnd faces. Did the treatment of the character witnesses approach intimidation or were they simply asked to stand behind their assessment of a admitted sexual abuser?
Those who defended Paden, often citing his involvement with the Dearborn Area Fire Protection District and his local church, faced backlash.
However, Zahnd argues that the victim faced an even worse fate — not only from the admitted sex offender in the case but from the community. She was ostracized while Paden received defense from many prominent citizens.
According to reports, Zahnd contended in his own testimony that he has an obligation to protect the victim and for his office to show other potential victims that they will fight for their justice — no matter the defendant’s stature.
The hearing in front of the OCDC panel — two lawyers and one non-lawyer — featured attorneys with attorneys who had attorneys. This was a very serious matter and extremely unusual for a sitting elected official.
O’Connor has previously asked the court to have Zahnd’s office removed from his clients’ cases.
This included using the ethics complaint to the OCDC as justification for removing the Platte County Prosecutor’s Office from Denham’s quadruple-homicide case and four others. However, judge Glen A. Dietrich denied the motion and in a scathing ruling brought up several details that work against O’Connor’s claim.
In the past, O’Connor has called a member of Zahnd’s office expletives during past proceedings, and he later admitted that he took “no pleasure in taking this action” in filing the current ethical complaint. Dietrich found no evidence that assistant prosecuting attorney Chris “Seufert or any other member of the Platte County Prosecuting Attorney’s office has ever treated Mr. O’Connor unfairly or unprofessionally.”
In fact, Dietrich went on to say he believe O’Connor had “come to have some type of professional issues with Mr. Seufert.”
The ethics case proceeded anyway, and after testimony concluded, Zahnd’s attorney asked for the case to be dismissed. The OCDC’s attorney recommended a suspension of Zahnd’s law license for six months and a day.
The panel has 30 days to issue a ruling, although it was asked for that process to be expedited.
There could be a quick ruling in Zahnd’s favor or the matter could end up before the Missouri Supreme Court. The issue carries significant weight for Zahnd’s professional career. He’s still considered a top candidate for appointment to the vacant prosecutor position in the U.S. Western District of Missouri federal court with Tom Larson currently serving as active U.S. attorney.
Denham continues to await trial for the grisly Edgerton, Mo. murder, facing prospects of the death penalty.
Ross Martin is publisher of The Citizen. He may be reached via email at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter: @Citizen_Ross.