When the Law Preserves Injustice: Issues Raised by a Wrongful Incarceration Exception to Attorney-Client Confidentiality
Hasbani, Inbal, Journal of Criminal Law and Criminology
The United States is built upon a foundation of liberty, (1) a value that is reflected in nearly every facet of American law and culture. Perhaps in part because of this fundamental value, the idea of wrongful incarcerations is particularly repugnant. In the past several years, two wrongful incarceration cases have garnered especially heightened media attention. Both cases involved lawyers who were privy to information that would help free wrongfully incarcerated men, but were barred from coming forward because of confidentiality restraints associated with their relationships with their clients. In other words, these lawyers were bound by the judicial system--a system Americans would like to believe secures liberty, justice, and freedom--from freeing innocent men from jail.
In one case, two attorneys, Dale Coventry and Jamie Kunz, knew that their client, Andrew Wilson, had committed the murder for which another man, Alton Logan, was serving a life sentence. (2) Wilson, who had confessed to the crime while Logan was being tried, was serving a lifetime sentence himself for two other murder convictions. (3) Unsurprisingly, Wilson did not authorize his attorneys to disclose his incriminating confession, and so the attorneys were required under Illinois ethical rules to remain silent. (4) In the face of this ethical quandary, the attorneys, along with Mark Miller, the attorney representing the alleged co-defendant in Logan's case, signed an affidavit stating that they had information from privileged sources that Logan was not responsible for the murder. (5) Wilson gave his attorneys permission to reveal the exonerating information in the event of his death. (6) Twenty-six years later, after Logan had spent nearly half his life in jail, Andrew Wilson died, and the attorneys revealed Logan's innocence] Soon after, Logan was released from prison. (8)
Similarly, Staple Hughes, a North Carolina lawyer, revealed his client's confession in 2004, hoping to free Lee Wayne Hunt from his life sentence in prison. (9) Hughes claimed that twenty-two years earlier, his now-dead client confessed that he acted alone in committing a double murder for which another man, Lee Wayne Hunt, was serving a life sentence. (10) Hughes claimed that after his own imprisoned client died, he felt it was "ethically permissible and morally imperative" that he come forward with the exonerating information. (11) The law, however, binds attorneys to remain silent even after their clients' deaths, (12) and Hughes did not receive his client's consent to reveal the confidential information. (13) Judge Jack Thompson of the Cumberland County Superior Court in Fayetteville refused to consider Hughes' testimony during a hearing in 2007 in response to Hunt's request for a new trial, claiming, "Mr. Hughes has committed professional misconduct." (14) Although Hughes was referred to the North Carolina Bar for violating attorney-client privilege, the complaint was dismissed in January 2008 in a confidential decision. (15) Meanwhile, Lee Wayne Hunt remains in jail despite the apparently exonerating information. (16)
The lawyers' silence in the Alton Logan and Lee Wayne Hunt cases produces a sense of outrage towards the ethical constructs that are meant to guide lawyers in the judicial system. The decades-long prison terms of innocent men force us to question whether the ethical guidelines are ethical at all. What kind of system allows a man to serve day after day in prison when lawyers know he is innocent? When the moral premise of the judicial system is to establish justice, how can the same judicial system require a lawyer to remain silent as innocent men and women remain in jail unjustly?
The answers, unfortunately, are more complicated than they seem. Although the end goal of the judicial system is certainly to produce justice, lawyers' first obligations are almost always to their clients, in the hopes that the adversarial system will weed out the truth from fiction and ensure that justice is served. …