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Prosecutor's mishap should yield consequences

BY DI EDITORIAL BOARD | OCTOBER 04, 2011 7:20 AM

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One simple slip-up led to a mistrial, valuable time and resources wasted, which may total more $50,000 in real costs.

The taxpayer-paid Johnson County prosecutor's blunder necessitates much scrutiny going forward, but any scrutiny that occurs will not matter — the next election for county attorney will be in 2014.

In the interest of running a more efficient and accountable government, elections for county attorney should be held every two years. But as electoral reform may be unlikely to change in the near future, disciplinary actions parallel to that of a private firm need to be implemented.

It's been over a week since the Charles W.C. Thompson case was declared a mistrial, and the county has yet to yield any insight to the professional ramifications of County Attorney Janet Lyness' locally infamous slip-up. After mistakenly playing video evidence that both sides agreed to be misleading, Judge Sean McPartland decided to declare a mistrial.

In the week following the ruling, it seems the costly mistake to the community will yield no direct ramifications to the person directly responsible.

If Lyness had made the same mistake while working for a private firm, her performance would be closely monitored. At the very least, she would lose respect as an attorney and would likely suffer severe fiscal consequences in lost clientele. Several local law firms were inquired to gauge the outcome of Lyness' oversight analogous to a private context, but none wanted to be quoted publicly.

This is a homicide trial, and Lyness is a lawyer. She has been to law school. She knows how to build a case, how to present briefs, how to make appeals, how to win, and how to count her losses. She has worked and won many cases. She is, by definition of merit alone, a legal "professional."

Lyness is a human being. She makes mistakes. But professionals of her standard should not make these kind of egregious oversights. She must be penalized in some way.

What readers need to understand before examining the aftermath of McPartland's declaration is this: In deciding whether or not to permit the application of evidence, the prosecution and the defense must evaluate and ultimately — if it comes down to it — argue. The process of fighting for the exclusion or inclusion of evidence, especially in a homicide trial, often takes weeks, even months. The evidence contained in segment of that tape "accidentally" played during the final moments of the Thompson trial contained information that must have been debated over for an extensive period of time, because it is delicate evidence. The exclusion of that particular segment of video was a significant and highly important victory for the defense.

Though not impossible, it is unlikely that Lyness' slip-up during the video presentation was purposeful. But just as it would not slip the mind of a mechanic to replace the wheels of a sedan after brake work, a prosecutor should not forget to press "stop" on a tape player during a high-profile case.

Unfortunately, few voters will recall this mishap in 2014. And if 2014 is similar to the any general election for county attorney since 1970, Lyness will run unopposed.

There are no elections in private practices. Competition continues to be stiff for private practitioners as more and more law graduates flood the limited job market. A survey of the class of 2009 law graduates indicated that 29.2 percent did not have a job requiring a bar passage by this year, 2011. To assume these graduates would not prefer a job in a law firm would be near senseless.

While a high-profile mistake such as this one will have no lasting impact on the county attorney, some law firms would have started to seriously consider reviewing a stacked set of potential replacements.

Lyness has cost the county time and money and has sparked vast negative publicity. If lawyers had to wait three-plus years to replace a injurious partner, their profits would likely dwindle and their livelihoods would be at risk. Lyness should be reprimanded to the satisfaction of the taxpaying public, but she won't. She'll continue to practice as if nothing had happened.

This is just one example of how government needs to imitate private counterparts for cost-efficiency and quality of employment. By having more frequent elections with effective replacement provisions, the county attorney will be more primed to serve the needs of the community that elects her or him.


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