LIKE MOST people, I once dated a person I shouldn't have.
He was a perfectly nice fellow in some respects, but the episode can safely be filed under the category of "What Was Christine Thinking?" That's why, on a personal level, I can empathize with Jennifer Mitrick, the Philadelphia assistant district attorney who fell for an alleged drug dealer after she prosecuted the guy charged with shooting him through the head.
We all make mistakes, sometimes including colossal errors in romantic judgment. (So what were YOU thinking, Jen?)
But Counselor Mitrick isn't just a naive 30-something with an audition for the next installment of "The Bachelorette." She is a credentialed and by all accounts well-educated lawyer with the city's chief legal enforcement agency charged with prosecuting criminal violations. At the very least, those who pay her salary have a right to assume that her off-the-clock activities don't include cavorting with a fellow who thinks that compliance with the Pennsylvania Penal Code, the same one that Mittrick enforces, is optional.
Okay, enough sarcasm. This is a serious matter, and while off-color comments about the ADA and her eccentric taste in men makes for spicier copy, it obscures the central, disturbing fact: An officer of the court dated a known drug dealer who only a short time before had been the prosecution's witness-in-chief, not to mention the victim, in a case that she was handling.
While there's no specific rule telling lawyers who they can date and punishing them for their love lives, there is a specific prohibition on dating your client unless you were intimate with him before he actually became your client. According to Rule of Professional Conduct 1.8(j), "a lawyer shall not have sexual relations with a client unless a consensual relationship existed between them when the client-lawyer relationship commenced."
Of course, as I noted in my blog a few weeks ago, the victim of a crime is not exactly the "client" of the DA's office. But a strong case can be made that if the district attorney represents "the people." that includes victims, and therefore Jennifer Mitrick violated her professional obligations.
Some might say that since she revealed the relationship voluntarily after a mistrial was declared in the case, she at least tried to do the right thing. But it's too little, too late in my estimation.
All we have to go on at this stage is that after revealing her unconventional dating habits, Mitrick got off with a slap on the wrist, i.e., an inter-office transfer.
No suspension. No writing "I will not date drug dealers" 100 times on her Facebook page.
It's also difficult to know whether a complaint was filed with the Disciplinary Board due to Pennsylvania Rule of Disciplinary Procedure 209, which requires confidentiality unless formal charges have been issued. As an attorney, that's something I wholeheartedly support. Bad behavior doesn't automatically amount to lawyerly misconduct, and the mere suggestion that a complaint has been filed could be prejudicial. You have to wonder.
To compound the mystery, the D.A.'s office has now circled the wagons. In response to an email I sent to office spokeswoman Tasha Jamerson asking, among other things, if the office had a discipline policy for this type of situation, I got a very prompt, very polite "no comment."
I can't blame Jamerson. She's not the one with the execrable judgment and the inability to distinguish between marginally legal and arguably unethical behavior. She's not the one who raised questions about her duties as an officer of the court by dating someone who ended up being investigated by the same police department she supposedly cooperated with to stanch the flow of narcotics. And she's not the one who gives legitimacy to the doubts so many Philadelphians have about the effectiveness of our criminal justice system. She's just the one stuck with managing the public realtions mess caused by an office that has seemingly turned a conveniently blind eye to some questionable conduct. I never made law review, but I pride myself on my analytical skills. That's why I'm bewildered that the District Attorney's Office still employs a woman who dated an alleged drug dealer, particularly when the case in which they were both involved ended in a hung jury and then an acquittal. (Way to lose one for the Gipper, Jen.)
It might also be interesting to find out why the department has also hired an attorney with five prior arrests, according to a report in yesterday's Daily News. This is one of the issues that's apparently caused well-respected career prosecutor Joseph McGettigan to resign.
Care to comment, Seth?