Child Pornography Defense Attorney Sanctioned for Requesting Warning on Victim Statement

June 14, 2010 by David S. Seltzer

As a Miami-Dade cyber crime criminal defense attorney, I was very interested to read about court sanctions brought against a fellow defense lawyer in a child pornography case. According to a June 12 article from the Detroit News, John Freeman of Troy, Mich., was sanctioned by a Detroit federal court for what the judge in the case said was a “blatant attempt to intimidate the minor victim’s mother” by asking for advance notice of the content of a victim impact statement from the mother. Freeman and his own defense attorney say there was no attempt at intimidation and that he was trying to balance his client’s due process rights with the legal rights given to crime victims. The National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers filed an amicus brief in the case supporting Freeman.

In the underlying case, Freeman was defending Craig Aleo, a former school official who was convicted of manufacturing child pornography, for which he victimized a four-year-old girl. Aleo was sentenced to 60 years in prison in April. At the sentencing, the victim’s mother was permitted to give a statement, thanks to the federal Crime Victims’ Rights Act. Before Aleo was sentenced, Freeman filed a motion asking the court to order the prosecutors to give him advance notice of the content of the girl’s mother’s statement. He said this was required by the Crime Victims’ Rights Act, so he could respond appropriately. But the judge in the case said an advance notice requirement was not in the Act, and that the request was an attempt to intimidate the mother that was “unwarranted, baseless and worthy of contempt of court.” Freeman also broke a local court rule by not seeking agreement with prosecutors before he filed the motion, the judge said. Freeman was fined $2,000.

The Detroit News noted that the NACDL supported Freeman, with a spokesman for the group saying defense attorneys should be free to zealously and appropriately defend their clients without fear of sanctions. Not surprisingly, this Fort Lauderdale cyber crime criminal defense lawyer agrees. I am not familiar with the details of the case, but from a statement the judge made in an earlier article, I suspect that this judge’s reaction was an overreaction, possibly because of the terrible nature of the crime in the underlying case. In the earlier article, the judge is quoted saying that Freeman’s request “serves as yet another indication ... of the incredible lack of remorse for the victim in this matter.” That statement suggests that the judge has mixed up Freeman with Aleo, his client and the perpetrator of the crime at issue. It’s also worth noting that Aleo was sentenced to twice the amount of prison time the prosecutors had asked for, suggesting that the judge used his discretion to show how upsetting he found the crime.

If Freeman made a mistake in interpreting the Crime Victims’ Rights Act and broke local court rules, some penalty is appropriate. But as a South Florida cyber crime criminal defense attorney, I strongly agree with the NACDL that it is inappropriate and frightening to sanction a lawyer for doing his best to defend a client. Everyone in the United States criminal justice system is entitled to legal representation, and that includes people who are accused of serious and shocking crimes. No matter what Aleo did, part of Freeman’s job was to ensure that he got the due process he was entitled to under the law. Doing that job incorrectly is unfortunate, but there’s nothing in the information I have to suggest that it was an attempt to intimidate rather than a mistake. If we allow judges to sanction lawyers based on how they feel about the client’s actions, we will chill defense lawyers’ actions, denying their clients the full protection of the justice system. And as this case shows, that protection may be even more important when the underlying crime is shocking.