From “The Ethics Incompleteness Theorem” and “The Ends Justify The Means” Files, The Pautler Case: My Favorite Legal Ethics Dilemma Ever!

"Irena's Vow" Pictured L to R: Maja Wampuszyc, Tracee Chimo, Tovah Feldshuh (kneeling), Gene Silvers

The Sundance Channel was doing a “Law and Order” marathon this week, and I happened to see an episode from 2002 that I had missed. It was based on the Pautler case in Colorado from the same year.

In “DR 1-102,”  Assistant DA Serena Southerlyn (Elisabeth Rohm) deals with a hostage crisis in which a man suspected of bludgeoning two women to death claims he will release his captive, held at knifepoint (above), if he can consult with an attorney. Southerlyn volunteers to enter the scene, and obtains both the hostage’s release and the killer’s  surrender, but only by deceiving him into believing that she is his lawyer, and not a prosecutor working for the police and the State. Although Southerlyn is hailed as a hero, the bar seeks to disbar her, charging her with violating Disciplinary Rule 1-102 (now New York RPC 8.4 d., which prohibits lawyers from lying.  .

Actually, Serena did a lot more than that, as did her model, Mark Pautler, the Jefferson County (Colorado) assistant D.A. whose real life conduct created a legal ethics dilemma that is debated to this day.

On June 8th, 1998, Chief Deputy District Attorney Mark Pautler  arrived at a gruesome crime scene where three women lay not just murdered, but chopped in the skull.  All had died from hit in the head with a wood splitting maul. The killer was William Neal, who had apparently abducted the three murder victims, one at a time, and killed them over a three-day period. Now, police said, he was at another locale, having released three hostages he had held in terror for about 30 hours. Neal left in the apartment a tape recording that detailed all of his crimes, including a fourth murder and rape at gun point.

Neal contacted police at the apartment using his cell phone and personally described his crimes in a three-and-a-half hour conversation. The officer speaking with Neal took notes of the conversation and occasionally passed messages to Pautler and other officers at the scene. A skilled negotiator, she urged the maniac to surrender peacefully. Efforts to ascertain the location of Neal’s cell phone were unsuccessful, and it was feared that if Neal did not surrender, others would die.

Neal made it clear he would not surrender without legal representation. The police did not trust the public defenders office to handle the situation, fearing that a defense counsel’s advice might lead Neal not to place himself in police custody. Pautler also believed that a public defender would advise Neal not to talk with law enforcement. Neal was savvy enough, he felt, that a police officer could not effectively pretend to be his lawyer, so Pautler agreed to impersonate a defense attorney over the phone He told Neal that his name was was “Mark Palmer.”

Though in the ensuing phone conversation Pautler tried to avoid giving direct legal advice, it was clear that Neal believed “Mark Palmer” worked for the public defender’s office and represented him. And the deception worked: Neal eventually surrendered without further incident.

Not surprisingly, the Colorado Bar had problems with Pautler’s conduct. He was charged with violating two ethics rules, the equivalent of the one used in the “Law and Order” episode and also Colorado Rule 4.3, which requires a lawyer to inform an unrepresented party so it is clear that he isn’t representing him, and to give no legal advice other than to get an attorney. They could easily have charged him with violating others. like Rule 1.3, requiring diligent representation (Call me a stickler, but trying to trick your client into surrendering to police isn’t what the rule has in mind), Rule 1.4, which requires a lawyer to keep a client informed (“Oh: I’m really a prosecutor!“), Rule 1.6, Confidentiality (Pautler shared what Neal told him with police; a lawyer can’t do that! ) Rule 1.7, Conflicts of Interest (Ya think?) and Rule 4.1, which prohibits lawyers making false statements of fact, like “I’m here to help you.” Continue reading