Prominent New Orleans defense attorney John Fuller faces a state ethics complaint over a visit he made to a pair of his client’s jailed co-defendants during a murder trial last month, according to a Baton Rouge attorney who says he lodged the complaint with the Louisiana Attorney Disciplinary Board.
Attorney Brent Stockstill said Fuller violated the state judicial ethics code when he and law partner Gregory Carter paid a May 11 jail visit to Philip Francois and Tavoris Smith.
Stockstill, who represented Smith and another co-defendant in the 2010 murder case, called the jail visit “foolish” and said he sent his complaint to Charles Plattsmier, chief disciplinary counsel for the state board.
“I ethically had to report this,” Stockstill said, adding that “having the opposing attorney interfering with my representation does greatly offend me.”
Fuller acknowledged the jail visit, which was recorded on video with no audio, the following day in court, as prosecutors with Orleans Parish District Attorney Leon Cannizzaro’s office howled over what they described as an ethical and perhaps criminal breach.
The Louisiana Rules of Professional Conduct for lawyers bar them from communicating with “a person the lawyer knows to be represented by another lawyer in the matter” without consent.
The jail visit took place during the murder trial of Donovan Carter, who was accused in the Nov. 1, 2010, killing of a Bay St. Louis, Mississippi, man, Thomas Jessie, in the French Quarter.
Fuller argued that recordings of jailhouse phone calls by some of Carter’s four co-defendants — each of whom testified at Carter’s trial — showed they expected to be freed within the week, though at the time they still faced charges in Jessie’s murder.
The four friends — Francois, Smith, Michael Johnson and Lamarcus Murray — were added to the murder case in a November indictment that defense attorneys described as an overzealous delaying tactic by Cannizzaro’s office.
All four friends had been detained by police, along with Carter, within minutes of Jessie’s killing. However, only Carter was booked on suspicion of murder until November’s indictment five years later.
The four friends had told a jury they were offered no deals for their testimony, and Fuller said his anger over what he described as an “uncorrected lie” sparked his visit to the jail.
“I became incensed, and I felt due diligence and my requirement to protect my client’s right to a fair trial are what led me to go interview the witnesses and inquire as to whether they got a deal,” Fuller said. “We certainly didn’t discuss the facts (of the case) at all.”
Fuller’s lengthy client list includes Cardell Hayes, the New Orleans tow truck driver accused of gunning down former Saints lineman Will Smith on April 9 in the Lower Garden District. A defense lawyer for about 15 years, Fuller recently turned down a temporary appointment to the Criminal District Court bench to continue representing Hayes.
Fuller’s partner, Gregory Carter, who is no relation to their client, said Wednesday that he and Fuller welcome a chance to address the state board, which operates in secret until it makes a recommendation to the Supreme Court on a range of possible disciplinary action.
“At the end of the day, we think we represented our client the way the code of ethics demands,” Carter said. “We certainly didn’t knowingly violate any part of the ethics code.”
Stockstill said he had never seen such a violation in his 27 years as a lawyer.
A jury ended up acquitting Donovan Carter in Jessie’s killing.
Jerome Matthews, Francois’ attorney, said he did not file a complaint against the attorneys because “I don’t think they violated any ethical rules.”
Christopher Bowman, a spokesman for Cannizzaro’s office, said the office also has not filed any ethics complaint against Fuller or Carter.
Stockstill disputed Fuller’s account, insisting there was no deal in place for his client and that Smith at the time anticipated standing trial for the murder.
But Fuller said the decision by Cannizzaro’s office last week to drop the charges against the four co-defendants in the wake of Donovan Carter’s acquittal supports his view.
“There’s nothing more lenient than that,” Fuller said.