Wednesday, July 28, 2010
Written by Nathan Stubbs
A pending disciplinary case against Lafayette attorneys Kevin Stockstill and Daniel J. Stanford could have serious implications for their practices – and send a strong message to criminal defense attorneys across the state.
Two Lafayette attorneys are facing a potential year-long suspension from practicing law over charges of professional misconduct dating back to a case they handled almost five years ago. The attorneys, J. Kevin Stockstill and Daniel J. Stanford, have continued their local criminal defense practices as the case against them makes its methodical way through the attorney disciplinary system. Stockstill represents former Ascension Episcopal School counselor Allison Hargrave in a high-profile case tied to the 39-year-old psychiatrist’s alleged sexual relationship with a 14-year-old female student.
In March, the Louisiana Attorney Disciplinary Board recommended both Stockstill and Stanford be suspended from practicing law for two years, with all but a year and a day of each suspension deferred, and placed on probation for one year subject to successfully completing ethics school. The disciplinary board’s recommendation was much harsher than that of a hearing committee that first heard the case. The hearing committee’s July 2009 report suggested a six-month suspension, entirely deferred, along with being sentenced to a one-day ethics seminar. The Office of Disciplinary Counsel has also weighed in, suggesting that both the disciplinary board and the hearing committee’srecommended sanctions are too lenient. The case is now scheduled to go before the Louisiana Supreme Court as part of its upcoming fall docket. A final ruling is expected by the end of the year.
Neither Stockstill nor Stanford returned calls for comment for this story.
Dane Ciolino, who teaches legal ethics at Loyola Law School and runs the blog, lalegalethics.org, says this case differs from the more typical ethics cases — which often involve matters like improper communications or theft. “This is an unusual disciplinary case,” Ciolino says. “It’s not a run of the mill proceeding,” he adds, noting that the court may use these serious charges in part to set an example. “Some part of the whole discovery process is general deterrence,” he says.
“It is an important case,” notes defense attorney Paul Hebert, of the firm Ottinger Hebert, who is representing Stockstill. “It’s an interesting situation because it creates a real devilish situation for people who do criminal defense as to how far you can go.” Hebert is urging the Supreme Court to dismiss the charges, arguing there is not clear and convincing evidence his client intended to commit a crime and that he “acted appropriately in defending his client of a serious charge.”
The charges arise from a 2005 case in which Stockstill and Stanford, who shared office space at the time, co-represented Darryl Theriot, who was originally accused of the alleged aggravated and incestuous rape of his then 16-year-old daughter.
At issue is a meeting Stanford and Stockstill helped arrange with the victim, identified as D.T., and her father, Darryl Theriot, their client. At the meeting, Stanford presented D.T., who was at that time over the age of 18, with three documents to sign, all drafted by Stockstill. They included an affidavit asking District Attorney Mike Harson’s office to drop the charges against Darryl Theriot, another affidavit asking the court to relieve any order preventing Darryl Theriot from visiting with his daughter while charges were pending against him, and a “Confidentiality Agreement.”
The confidentiality agreement states that the two parties, D.T. and her father, agree not to tell about the meeting upon penalty of “all costs, expenses, liabilities and fees, including attorney’s fees, that may be incurred as a result of such breach.”
Stanford testified that he did not make any attempt to explain the documents because, serving as Darryl Theriot’s attorney, he had a conflict of interest. He also did not at that time suggest that D.T. retain her own lawyer to review the documents before signing them.
The prosecutor in the case, Assistant District Attorney Michele Billeaud (who filed the original complaint against Stockstill and Stanford), did not find out about the agreement until weeks later.
Billeaud testified that while D.T. had previously been a willing and cooperative witness, D.T. suddenly began ignoring her phone calls, forcing Billeaud to arrange for a paralegal to go to D.T.’s work place to find out why and to serve a subpoena for her to testify. When Billeaud quizzed Stockstill on the matter, he faxed her the two affidavits but withheld the confidentiality agreement (Stanford and Stockstill did not produce that until a later meeting with Billeaud).
Stockstill and Stanford then helped arrange for a separate attorney, Chris Richard, to represent D.T. Stockstill paid Richard for his services with money from his client, D.T.’s father. A plea agreement was eventually reached with defendant Darryl Theriot, who pleaded to lesser charges of aggravated battery, molestation of a juvenile, contributing to the delinquency of a minor and indecent behavior with a juvenile.
Billeaud testified that she agreed to the plea deal, reducing a charge of aggravated rape — which carries a mandatory life sentence — to aggravated battery, primarily because of D.T.’s change of attitude in testifying.
Stockstill countered in his testimony that Billeaud’s case had problems that would have made a conviction difficult and that the affidavit D.T. signed expressing a desire to cease prosecution of the criminal charges is common in the practice of criminal law — even citing the high-profile case of NBA star Kobe Bryant as a recent example.
In their defense, the attorneys have also stressed that the victim, D.T., through her aunt, reached out to them in this case, wanting to meet with her father and expressing a desire to drop the charges. Stockstill testified that he was in a difficult predicament that called for him to put his client in a meeting where the lawyer would not be present, which is why he drafted the confidentiality agreement. He also testified that he conducted legal research and consulted with another attorney whom he considered his mentor, Tommy Guilbeau, before going forward with the meeting. (Guilbeau was not called as a witness at the trial, and it’s unclear what he told Stockstill.)
Guilbeau declined comment for this article.
In its majority opinion, the disciplinary board wrote: “By employing the ‘Confidentiality Agreement as they did, Respondents indicated that the civil sanctions in their ‘Agreement’ trumped the obligation she already owed to a district court to testify at trial.” In assessing the hearing committee’s recommended sanction, the board wrote, “Given that Respondents here acted coercively, and given their substantial experience in the practice of law and the presence of a vulnerable victim, the sanction here should be greater.”
The hearing committee in part had based its recommendation on the two attorneys’ good reputations. “The mitigating factors here loom large,” the committee wrote. “Neither Respondent has a prior disciplinary record, and the testimony of every character witness, including the complaining attorney, Michele Billeaud, is that they both enjoy reputations of being excellent and honest attorneys, and there is nothing in the record to suggest that this incident was anything but a one-time, ill-considered episode.”
These will all be big issues for the Supreme Court to weigh in deciding the attorneys’ fate. Whatever the high court’s decision, it will also undoubtably send a message to criminal defense attorneys across the state. “I think it has huge implications,” Hebert says, arguing that a harsh punishment could have “a chilling effect” on criminal defense. “What people need to understand is that as a lawyer, especially when you’re representing criminal defendants, you have an obligation to represent the criminal defendant, and sometimes those cases may not be the most pleasant, but he has an obligation to represent that guy to the fullest.”