Judge Finds Evidence of Ethical Violations in Huffington Prosecution

In The News
March 18, 2021

A judge in Maryland recently issued a ruling finding that the State’s Attorney who led the prosecution of long-time Ropes & Gray client John Huffington for more than three decades violated numerous ethical obligations, including failing to turn over exculpatory evidence and making misrepresentations to the court and Ropes & Gray. Retired Baltimore Circuit Court Judge Barbara Howe, who held an evidentiary hearing in a case brought by the Maryland Attorney Grievance Commission (“AGC”) against Joseph Cassilly, former State’s Attorney for Harford County, found that Mr. Cassilly violated six separate provisions of the Maryland Rules of Professional Conduct in the course of prosecuting Mr. Huffington. 

After entering an Alford plea—in which he maintained his innocence—in December 2017, Mr. Huffington, whom Ropes & Gray has represented since 1987, filed an ethics complaint against Mr. Cassilly, asserting ethical violations that contributed to his spending over three decades wrongfully imprisoned. Although Mr. Huffington was eventually released in 2013 on a Writ of Actual Innocence following DNA testing that demonstrated that hairs collected at the scene did not belong to Mr. Huffington, Mr. Cassilly was in possession of information that “tended to negate Mr. Huffington’s guilt and was exculpatory” as early as 1999. Ropes & Gray did not receive that information until a Washington Post reporter provided it over a decade later.

Following an investigation of Mr. Huffington’s complaint, the AGC filed ethics charges against Mr. Cassilly, alleging violations of rules of professional conduct that prohibit making false statements to a court, require fairness towards the opposing party, and mandate disclosure of exculpatory evidence. After a three-day trial in February, Judge Howe issued her Findings of Fact and Conclusions of Law on March 10, 2021, finding that Mr. Cassilly “displayed a disregard of his professional responsibilities as an attorney.” The key violation was failure to disclose to Mr. Huffington or his counsel two letters from the U.S. Department of Justice—even after Ropes & Gray made formal discovery requests for these letters—that discredited both the FBI agent who testified in Mr. Huffington’s original trial and the forensic techniques used to convict Mr. Huffington in the first place. Mr. Cassilly further violated his ethical obligations when he intentionally misrepresented the contents of the letters to the post-conviction court. The court found that Mr. Cassilly’s statements about those letters were “knowingly and intentionally false.” Judge Howe recommended that the Circuit Court of Appeals, which will now take up the case to determine an appropriate sanction, issue a reprimand to Mr. Cassilly, finding that no further sanction was needed to protect the public since Mr. Cassilly is no longer practicing law. 

Chong S. Park, partner in the Washington, D.C. office of Ropes & Gray and lead counsel in the case, was called to testify as a witness in the hearing. “John Huffington spent over 30 years in prison, wrongly convicted of a crime he did not commit,” Chong said. “While the court’s finding that there is ‘clear and convincing evidence’ of prosecutorial misconduct by Mr. Cassilly does not undo the grave wrongs and injustices Mr. Huffington suffered, it does provide vindication for John, who has long held that Mr. Cassilly violated his ethical and prosecutorial obligations of honesty with the court and counsel and to disclose any evidence that undermines the prosecution’s case. The court’s decision underscores the importance of these obligations and the need for prosecutors to adhere to them.”

The Washington, D.C. based Ropes & Gray team representing Mr. Huffington is led by Chong, and includes associates Adam Safadi, and Ryan Brunner.