The Johnson County prosecutor violated professional rules of conduct in comments he made about a judge, a disciplinary hearing judge found.
The judge also issued Prosecutor Brad Cooper a public reprimand, which does not have any impact on Cooper’s license to practice law.
The decision is the resolution to a disciplinary case filed against Cooper in 2015 by the Indiana Supreme Court Disciplinary Commission. The complaint stemmed from comments Cooper made to the media in 2014 after St. Joseph County Superior Court Judge Jane Woodward Miller ruled that Michael Dean Overstreet, who was convicted of murdering 19-year-old Kelly Eckart in 1997 in Johnson County, should not be executed. The appeal case had been transferred to the northern Indiana court after Johnson County Superior Court 2 Judge Cynthia Emkes recused herself due to medical issues.
When the ruling was made that Overstreet would no longer face the death penalty, Cooper told the media: “I was angry and suspicious when this case was sent to a distant judge who is not accountable to the Johnson County citizenry or a grieving mother who couldn’t even afford to drive up for the hearing. The idea that this convicted murdering monster is too sick to be executed is nothing short of outrageous and is an injustice to the victim, her mother, the jury and the hundreds of people who worked to convict this animal.”
Under the state’s professional rules of conduct for attorneys, “a lawyer shall not make a statement that the lawyer knows to be false or with reckless disregard as to its truth or falsity concerning the qualifications or integrity of a judge.”
Cooper acted in reckless disregard to the truth or falsity of his statement and that because he made the comments to the media, the statements would likely be widely disseminated, Wayne County Judge Charles Todd wrote in his decision issued this week.
Todd also found multiple factors that would lead to a lesser level of disciplinary action, including Cooper having no prior disciplinary history, Cooper apologizing to Miller shortly after receiving the complaint made to the disciplinary commission, Cooper’s involvement in the Overstreet case and support of Eckart’s family, that the comments Cooper made were not as egregious as in past disciplinary cases involving other attorneys, personal and emotional issues Cooper was facing before the comments were made and testimony from local judges and attorneys in support of Cooper.
“In short, the evidence presented shows that Cooper has conducted himself in the Johnson County Prosecutor’s Office in a manner and fashion that should be commended by the legal profession,” Todd wrote in his ruling.
In an email, Cooper said he was pleased with the decision and with points Todd brought up, including the judge’s considerable evaluation of his decision, commending Cooper’s caring and connected nature with Eckart’s mother and recognizing Cooper as hard-working, diligent, honest and ethical.
“I have no issue with the ruling and wholly accept the recommended reprimand as I took too far my advocacy on behalf of a 19-year-old girl who was abducted, raped and brutally murdered (and on behalf of her mother), for which I have apologized to the ruling judge and have learned from this process,” Cooper said in an email.
David Griffith, the attorney for the disciplinary commission, had proposed in his summary of the case that Cooper face a public reprimand based on the fact that Cooper had not previously had any disciplinary action against him, had cooperated with the commission, shown remorse for his actions and had otherwise conducted himself as an attorney with high ethical standards, ability, skills and knowledge, the filing said.
Griffith had raised concern about Cooper’s state of mind as a factor that should be weighed as part of the disciplinary case, including Cooper’s behavior during a disciplinary hearing in October, where both sides presented their case. Griffith wrote that Cooper did not exhibit a calm demeanor and often had a tendency to evade answering questions or jump from one line of thought to another, the filing said.
He also noted the testimony from multiple witnesses, including local attorneys and judges, who said Cooper was honest “to a fault.”
“Honestly is always a worthwhile quality in a person. However, someone who is “brutally honest” or “honest to a fault” is also someone who is unable to keep his thoughts from controlling his conduct or, in this case, his speech,” Griffith wrote.
Griffith wrote that he was concerned about the tendency of Cooper to speak his mind when circumstances don’t go the way he wished they would, and that he hoped Cooper would have a heightened sense of caution in the future in similar circumstances, the filing said.
“A lawyer who occupies a special position of trust and authority in a community, as does respondent, must always be aware that his state of mind cannot dictate the words that come out of his mouth,” Griffith wrote.
“Respondent should temper any future remarks about judges or rulings so that it does not appear as if he is on some kind of crusade. But an isolated incidence of misconduct, such as respondent’s in this case, does not necessarily mean that the integrity of the legal profession has suffered any negative impact.”
Griffith also was concerned about Cooper’s inability to accept the wrongfulness of his conduct and that “he lacks insight into the nature of his misconduct.” And he was concerned that the Johnson County judges and attorneys who testified were also unwilling to admit that Cooper had violated the professional rules of conduct, the filing said.
Cooper declined to address Griffith’s concerns, calling it nonsense and ridiculous. He noted that none of the issues Griffith brought up were included in the judge’s final ruling.
Cooper’s attorneys, James Voyles and Jennifer Lukemeyer, had argued that Cooper’s statements to the media did not violate professional rules of conduct and that the disciplinary commission did not prove that Cooper made any false statement about Miller’s qualifications or integrity, nor did he make a statement with reckless disregard to its truth or falsity, the filing said.
They argued Cooper’s statement about being suspicious reflected his feelings at the time the case was transferred to St. Joseph County, that he was angry Eckart’s mother could not afford to attend the hearing and that the residents of Johnson County were entitled to have the case heard here, since the crime happened here. He also said that he believed it was an injustice to Eckart and her mother for Overstreet to avoid the death penalty, the filing said. Those statements were Cooper’s opinion about the case, they said.
And they argued Cooper’s statements were not directed at Miller and did not question the judge’s qualifications or her integrity. They also noted Cooper apologized to Miller because he believed an apology was warranted since the judge was offended, and that apology mitigates any unintentional harm his statements caused, the filing said. They also noted emotional and personal issues Cooper was going through at the time, including the death of a relative and co-worker and his divorce from his wife of 20 years.
Griffith argued Cooper had violated professional rules of conduct and that his comments were directed at Miller, citing the letter Cooper wrote to the judge apologizing for comments directed at her, and saying that he criticized her ruling in the Overstreet case, calling Cooper’s comments a “direct attack” on Miller, the filing said.
In his ruling, Todd noted that Cooper had been able to pay for Eckart’s mother to attend the hearings in St. Joseph County, and that occurred prior to him making his comments to the media. He also wrote that Cooper’s suspicion of Miller as a “distant judge” implies a belief the judge would do something not compliant with the law because she was not accountable to local residents or Eckart’s mother. That, along with his statement that the idea Overstreet was too sick to be executed was outrageous and an injustice, implies his suspicions about Miller were confirmed and she made a decision contrary to the law or without legal support, the judge’s filing said.
Upset over moved case
Todd also found Cooper’s statements were directed at Miller based on the quote and Cooper’s letter to Miller, and that he did not provide facts to support his statement, the filing said.
And he noted the timing of Cooper’s statement, coming months after Eckart’s mother had been able to attend the hearings in St. Joseph County and after the case was moved to another county, and that Miller’s decision that Overstreet should not face the death penalty had just been issued.
Based on all the evidence presented, Todd found a public reprimand was appropriate for the case, the filing said. In disciplinary cases, attorneys can face discipline ranging from a private administrative admonition to private or public reprimand, suspension or disbarment.
“The Hearing Officer is left with the firm and well-supported impression that the Respondent Cooper is a hardworking, honest, and ethical public servant and has been so for many years,” Todd wrote in his ruling.
Hearing officer (Judge Charles K. Todd Jr.) findings of fact
Indiana Supreme Court Disciplinary Commission proposed finding
Respondent (Brad Cooper) proposed finding