After suggesting early this summer that he might do so, Platte County prosecutor Eric Zahnd is seeking an appeal to the highest court in the land of a ruling made against him by the Missouri Supreme Court in May.
In May, the Missouri Supreme Court issued a public reprimand — the lowest disciplinary order — for what it considered Zahnd’s mishandling of a press release involving a 2015 child sex abuse case. Zahnd issued a statement last week saying he has asked the United States Supreme Court to review the case.
In late 2015, Zahnd issued a press release regarding the sentencing of Darren Paden, the Dearborn man who pleaded guilty earlier that year to repeatedly molesting a female relative. In that release, Zahnd named Dearborn community members who had written letters supporting Paden prior to his sentencing. While The Citizen made the decision to not run these names at the time, many local media outlets did, prompting complaints from Paden’s defense attorney. That attorney, John O’Connor, filed an ethics complaint against Zahnd in early 2017.
In the release, Zahnd said it “breaks my heart to see pillars of this community — a former county official, a bank president — appear to choose the side of a child molester over the child he repeatedly abused.”
According to Zahnd, the names of the letter writers were already public information, his news release contained only truthful information and he did not share their names until the defendant had been sentenced.
After a disciplinary hearing held in late 2017, a three-person panel consisting of two lawyers and a non-lawyer recommended a reprimand. The Office of the Chief Disciplinary Counsel had sought a six month suspension of his law license.
Zahnd was only accused of violating the rules of professional conduct in regards to two of the letters received by the court, those of Jerry Hagg and Donna and Karlton Nash.
“The press release was false,” Chief Disciplinary Counsel Alan Pratzel said during oral arguments. “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.”
When Zahnd contested the findings of the disciplinary panel, the matter was referred to the Missouri Supreme Court.
Zahnd contends his 2015 news release is protected under the First Amendment and is vital to ensuring transparency of Missouri’s courts and protecting crime victims. His brief to the United States Supreme Court states that, until the Missouri Supreme Court issued its order, no lawyer in any American jurisdiction had ever been disciplined for reciting truthful, public information about a court case after the case had been concluded. Zahnd filed a petition for writ of certiorari on Monday, Aug. 20, requesting the United States Supreme Court consider the case.
“This case is no longer about me,” Zahnd said in the Wednesday, Aug. 22 release. “It’s about truth, the public’s right to know and victim rights.”
In the release, the staff attorney for the Missouri Press Association, the president of the Missouri Association of Prosecuting Attorneys and the executive director of Synergy Services also issued statements in support of Zahnd’s request.
“This case presents a vitally important question — can an elected prosecutor be reprimanded for telling the truth about public information in a news release regarding a court case once that case is over?” Zahnd said. “I believe the First Amendment and the ethical rules themselves permit prosecutors to advocate on behalf of crime victims in precisely that way. The Missouri Supreme Court apparently disagreed but did not explain why or when they think a prosecutor must hide the truth.”
The Missouri Supreme Court found Zahnd violated rule 4-4.4a “In representing a client, a lawyer shall not use means that have no substantial purpose other than to embarrass, delay or burden a third person or use methods of obtaining evidence that violate the legal rights of such a person,” 4-8.4a and 4-8.4d “It is professional misconduct for a lawyer to: (a) violate or attempt to violate the Rules of Professional Conduct, knowingly assist or induce another to do so, or do so through the acts of another; (d) engage in conduct that is prejudicial to the administration of justice.”
In the May ruling, the court issued the reprimand with no additional comment. Zahnd said in the release he wishes the court had explained its rationale for the reprimand.
“Since they did not, perhaps the United States Supreme Court will,” Zahnd said. “Of course, it’s very difficult to get a case heard by the United States Supreme Court. They only decide a tiny fraction of the cases they are asked to take. Even though it’s a longshot, this is a crucial issue, and it is worth every effort to get the case to the highest court in the nation.”