Missouri Prosecutor Under Fire

Eric Zahnd, a 1991 Oxbridge Institutions and Policy graduate of William Jewell College, became the Platte County Prosecuting Attorney in 2002. He was named one of the “40 Under 40” by Ingram’s Magazine in 2004 and was recognized as Missouri’s Prosecutor of the Year in 2014. In 2017, he was a leading candidate for western Missouri’s next U.S. Attorney. Zahnd is Platte County’s longest serving prosecutor and has the longest tenure for an elected prosecutor in the Kansas City metropolitan area.

According to the Platte County website, Zahnd’s top priorities include “protecting children, prosecuting sex offenders, and cracking down on career criminals.” To address these priorities, he has implemented many changes. He created the Platte County Cyber Crimes Unit, which was the first unit in Missouri to find and prosecute internet predators. He enacted Jessica’s Law in 2006 to imprison child rapists for life. Between 2012 and 2014, he wrote and signed a Missouri constitutional amendment that allowed juries to know about repeat child sex offenders’ previous offenses.

However, Zahnd has recently become the subject of controversy. John P. O’Connor, a criminal defense attorney at Wagstaff and Cartmell in Kansas City, Mo., filed an ethics complaint against Zahnd and Assistant Prosecutor Christopher Seufert for threatening witnesses in their 2015 case against Darren Paden. Paden of Dearborn, Mo. was accused and convicted of repeated child molestation. Members of the town had written letters to the judge to vouch for Paden’s character, saying he was a former chief of the volunteer fire department and a junior deacon at the local church.

Allegedly, Zahnd’s office contacted the individuals who wrote the letters and asked for them to withdraw their support. If they did not comply, they were threatened with subpoenaes, cross examination in court or naming in press releases.

According to KCUR, Zahnd retaliated by filing an ethics complaint agianst O’Connor, but nothing has been brought about from this filing yet. Since this complaint is still under review, O’Connor and Zahnd cannot comment on its content. O’Connor has requested not to work on cases with Zahnd’s office, but his appeal was denied by both the Platte County circuit court and the Missouri Court of Appeals.

In early August, Alan Pratzel, chief disciplinary counsel, found Zahnd guilty of violating the Missouri Rules of Professional Conduct, a compilation of rules pertaining to attorney behavior. The Office of Chief Disciplinary Counsel stated that it believes Zahnd should face repercussions for his actions.

Zahnd has denied all allegations. He replied to Pratzel’s charges in a 25-page statement in which he claimed he was doing his job and attempting to shield the individuals from public embarrassment.

“Prohibiting a prosecutor or any other lawyer from including truthful, publicly available information in a news release after a case has concluded would be a radical departure from the general understanding of the Rules’ requirements and would violate the First Amendment,” said Zahnd in his written statement.

The review will go before a disciplinary panel composed of two lawyers and one non-lawyer to decide the recommended outcome. The individuals on this panel will be Keith Cutler, attorney at James W. Tippin & Associates; Thomas Schult, attorney at Berkowitz Oliver LLP; and non-legal member Robert Ford. The case and disciplinary actions will ultimately come from the Missouri Supreme Court. Zahnd could face charges ranging from public reprimand to disbarment.

Photo courtesy of the Kansas City Star.

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