Prominent New Orleans defense attorney John Fuller received a public reprimand from the Louisiana Supreme Court this week after admitting he knowingly violated the state judicial ethics code when he confronted two of his client's co-defendants in jail last year during a murder trial.
Fuller, 44, and the state Office of Disciplinary Counsel agreed to the public reprimand over an incident in the Orleans Parish jail while his client, Donovan Carter, stood trial in the French Quarter killing of a Mississippi man, Thomas Jessie, in 2010.
Carter was standing trial alone, and Fuller admitted he grew incensed when four other men who also were indicted for the murder told the jury that they were being offered no deals for their testimony against his client.
Fuller said he had listened to jail tapes in which one of those men said he was assured he'd be freed days later.
Fuller went to the jail and asked a sheriff's deputy to fetch two of the witnesses, without first seeking permission from their attorneys, in an interaction caught on video.
Louisiana's Rules of Professional Conduct bar lawyers from communicating with “a person the lawyer knows to be represented by another lawyer in the matter” without that attorney's consent.
"I lose my mind. I literally am shaking with anger, and I'm sweating, and my heart's racing. I'm going to the jail to see my client. It was almost spontaneous: Let me call down two of them and just ask them about it," Fuller said in an interview last year.
Brent Stockstill, an attorney for one of Carter's co-defendants, filed a complaint against Fuller over the incident. Fuller said he also self-reported his lapse.
A jury ended up acquitting Carter in the killing. Orleans Parish District Attorney Leon Cannizzaro's office then dropped the murder charges against the four co-defendants, freeing them.
A public reprimand is among the lightest forms of discipline for lawyers who run afoul of ethics rules. Only a private reprimand is more lenient. The court also ordered Fuller to pay the cost of the disciplinary proceedings.
The incident was among a handful of alleged misdeeds that Cannizzaro's office gathered last year in an unusual dossier about Fuller that was sent to other law enforcement agencies. The DA's Office accused the in-demand trial attorney of witness tampering and possibly endangering the safety of a confidential informant.
Fuller dismissed the dossier as a compendium of "baseless and inflammatory accusations." He said late Tuesday that Cannizzaro's top deputy, First Assistant District Attorney Graymond Martin, sent the dossier to the Office of Disciplinary Counsel. Fuller said the office declined to recommend discipline against him for any of the other allegations contained in it.
He described his offense in the Donovan Carter trial as an "uncharacteristic decision in the heat of battle" and said he regretted setting a bad example for younger lawyers.
"I allowed my indignation to obscure my judgment - indignation at the fact that witnesses were purposely lying at a murder trial, and we had proof of it," he said, calling out prosecutors for failing to correct those witnesses.
"Rather than seeking the permission of the defendants' lawyers, I skipped that vital step and made a mistake that I certainly regret," he added.
The ruling did not involve Fuller's co-counsel at the time, Gregory Carter, who also was present during the jail visit. He declined to comment Tuesday.
Christopher Bowman, a spokesman for Cannizzaro's office, declined to comment on the Supreme Court decision.