he Missouri Supreme Court this week said it is reprimanding Platte County Prosecuting Attorney Eric Zahnd.
The action of a public reprimand–Zahnd must also pay $750 in fees–comes from Zahnd’s action while prosecuting a child sexual-abuse case involving a Dearborn man, the former local volunteer fire chief.
In announcing its ruling, the court did not explain its reasoning, a fact that frustrated some observers of the process.
The court found Zahnd in violation of rules prohibiting lawyers from using means “that have no substantial purpose other than to embarrass, delay, or burden” a third person, as well as violating the rules of professional conduct and engaging in conduct that is prejudicial to the administration of justice.
Zahnd on Tuesday night said he is considering all options, including the option of taking the matter to the United States Supreme Court.
“I have great respect for the Missouri Supreme Court but I do not believe I violated the rules as found in its order. While I appreciate that the court flatly rejected the recommendation of the Chief Disciplinary Counsel to suspend my law license, I am evaluating my options to seek further review of the court’s decision, including review by the United States Supreme Court,” Zahnd remarked.
“The court issued only a reprimand, which has no impact on my ability to continue to perform my duties as Platte County Prosecuting Attorney or to practice law.”
Last year, the Office of Chief Disciplinary Counsel accused Zahnd of intimidating community members who wrote to a Platte County Judge in support of Darren Paden, who pleaded guilty to two counts of statutory sodomy in 2015.
He and his assistant prosecutors worked to persuade Paden’s supporters to withdraw their letters. They said during the disciplinary hearing they feared the judge would impose a lighter sentence because the letters came from prominent citizens.
Their efforts included using the possibility of subpoena to force supporters to testify at Paden’s sentencing hearing, and threats the letter-writers would be outed as supporters of child molestation. Zahnd later issued a news release that named the supporters and their employers.
“This case involves important issues of an elected prosecutor’s right to speak truthfully about cases in our courts. Unfortunately, the court’s order does not address my contention that my work to stand up for a victim was protected by the First Amendment and the rules themselves,” Zahnd said this week.
“Let me be clear: I never threatened anybody; I simply told the truth. Had I believed for one moment that my conduct in standing up for the victim of child sex abuse could possibly be interpreted as violating the rules, I would have done things differently. But make no mistake, I will always do everything I can to stand up for victims—particularly when a child feels that prominent citizens in her hometown have turned against her. Despite the best efforts of criminal defense attorneys to silence me and all other prosecutors, I refuse to abandon victims of crime when they need someone to advocate on their behalf,” Zahnd added.
The Supreme Court’s punishment was the same punishment recommended by the disciplinary hearing panel that heard the case last November in two days worth of hearings in Platte City. The OCDC had asked the panel to recommend a six-month suspension of Zahnd’s law license.
Zahnd rejected the panel’s recommendation for a reprimand, bringing the matter before the supreme court for consideration.
Before the court, Zahnd argued his actions were protected by the First Amendment.
Jean Maneke, a Kansas City-based attorney who is legal counsel for the Missouri Press Association, reacted this way to the Missouri Supreme Court’s decision:
“Clearly the information contained in court pleadings that was stated by Mr. Zahnd was public information and clearly the newspapers had a First Amendment right to access and report it. I wish the court had been clearer on when exactly a prosecutor who states public information rises to the level of embarrassing or burdening a third party.”
Paula Dresher, the mother of the victim in the Paden case, said she appreciated Zahnd’s stance for the victim and said the prosecutor may in fact have saved her daughter from suicide.
“Eric Zahnd did what I wish every prosecutor would do for victims. He stood up for my daughter when people in our own hometown turned against her. The people who wrote letters on behalf of the man who sexually abused my daughter chose the side of a pedophile over her. Thank God Mr. Zahnd spoke the truth and supported us when those people turned against us. Those people drove my daughter to the brink of suicide, and Mr. Zahnd may have saved her life,” Dresher stated.
“Anyone who would criticize Mr. Zahnd for what he did doesn’t know what it’s like to be a victim. I hope this case helps people understand the needs of victims and what writing letters supporting a convicted child sex predator does to those victims,” she added.
A state association of prosecuting attorneys also had a reaction to the court’s decision on Tuesday night.
Amy Fite, president of the Missouri Association of Prosecuting Attorneys and the prosecutor for Christian County, remarked:
“Missouri’s prosecutors do not believe the rules governing lawyers are meant to prohibit a prosecutor from speaking up for a victim or telling the truth to the press about public information in a court case once the case is over. We also do not believe the rules are intended to prevent a lawyer from telling potential witnesses the truth about the facts of a case and the publicity surrounding it.”
Fite added: “Unfortunately the court’s order does not provide any guidance on those issues to instruct prosecutors in future cases on exactly what they can and cannot say and do in standing up for the rights of victims of child sex abuse and other crimes. This is troubling and will work a hardship on prosecutors to do what they are charged to do—advocate on behalf of justice and ensure the protection of victims of crime.”
Fite said the Missouri Supreme Court’s order “will have a chilling effect on all prosecutors in Missouri.”
“We will need to examine with policy makers whether it’s time to update these rules in this era of heightened awareness of the rights of crime victims and the respect they are owed by the judiciary to reflect the public’s expectations in the 21st century,” she added.