With support from two state agencies, Platte County prosecuting attorney Eric Zahnd issued a statement this week formally rejecting the recommendation of an Office of Chief Disciplinary Counsel (OCDC) ethics panel for him to face public reprimand.
The panel — two lawyers and one non-lawyer — found Zahnd guilty of professional misconduct in December, about a month after a hearing took place over multiple days in November. John O’Connor, a local defense attorney, filed a complaint with the OCDC against Zahnd in August, a continued step in trying to prove the Platte County Prosecuting Attorney Office tried to intimidate several people who wrote letters of defense for convicted child sex offender Darren Paden of Dearborn, Mo.
The ethics’ panel ruling stated in part that the longtime prosecuting attorney’s action in a case involving Paden “appears to have been an isolated case with fairly unique circumstances. The manner in which the letter-writers were handled in this case was different from other cases handled by the (prosecutor) — from subpoenaing them to testify at the sentencing, to meeting with them individually to discuss the specifics of the defendant’s confession.”
On Monday, Zahnd strongly rejected that notion with support from the Missouri Press Association and Missouri Association of Prosecuting Attorneys. The release from Zahnd referred to Paden as a clinically diagnosed pedophile who pleaded guilty to his crimes and received a 50-year prison sentence in October of 2015.
“I am rejecting the recommendation of the hearing panel regarding truthful statements I made to the public after the conclusion of a case involving a confessed child sex abuser,” Zahnd said in his statement. “Although I believe the panel’s decision is contrary to the controlling law and the undisputed facts of the case, I could live with the panel’s recommendation of a reprimand if it only affected me, since it would not impact my ability to continue to perform my duties as Platte County Prosecuting Attorney or to practice law. However, if the panel’s decision stands unchallenged, it will not affect me alone. It affects all prosecutors and attorneys in this state, deterring them from telling the truth about matters of public record in both criminal and civil cases.”
Zahnd continued to reiterate that he believes the public deserves to know the truth when it comes to what happens in courts. He believes this reprimand could deter other state prosecutors and lawyers from giving “truthful, public information” to citizens.
The controversy involving Paden appears to stem from 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 Paden, 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.
“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.
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.
“In this case, my office stood up for the victim of vile sex crimes that spanned a decade, including sharing truthful, public facts about the case,” Zahnd said.”I was fighting for victims of sexual abuse well before the #MeToo movement shed much-needed light on the forces that have silenced survivors for far too long. I do not believe the Missouri Supreme Court meant for its ethical rules to silence the truth about these matters. So rather than allowing the panel’s decision to stand based solely upon how it affects me personally, I have chosen to do what I believe is critical to empowering victims and protecting the right of the people to be informed about their courts.”
The matter will now go before the Missouri Supreme Court to determine what — if any — punishment will be leveled against Zahnd. Judges there should issue a ruling on whether or not Zahnd broke any rules and if so, what punishment to hand down.
The case could also be dismissed.
Zahnd has noted that the public reprimand is the lowest possible punishment for the ethics panel to recommend. He could’ve faced a suspension of his law license or worse.
The Missouri Press Association and the Missouri Association of Prosecuting Attorneys issued a joint statement in support of Zahnd:
“This decision in this case raises serious First Amendment issues about the ability of Missouri’s prosecutors to communicate with the public about things that have happened in open court,” it read. “It also will have a chilling effect on the ability of the press to provide accurate and complete information to the public about such matters. Our associations will offer briefs in support of Eric Zahnd’s appeal to explain the statewide ramifications that this decision will have on the dissemination of public information.”