Social media certainly presents some tricky questions for lawyers, but many prosecutors around the country have hardly hesitated or bothered to ask themselves how the Rules of Professional Conduct might come into play when they publicize case-related information. The former Prosecuting Attorney in St. Louis, Jennifer Joyce, ran amok online, causing a court to raise concern that she could have tainted the jury with her Twitter account. Mark Lindquist, who recently lost his re-election bid as DA of Pierce County, Washington, is no stranger to ethical controversy. He recently accepted an admonition from the state bar for making public comments in the media about a pending high-profile murder case. Sal Perricone, a former federal prosecutor in Louisiana, apparently realized that making public comments and disclosing privileged information would be problematic, so he tried to cloak his wrongdoing by responding to news stories online with anonymous comments. Eventually, his misconduct was uncovered, and he was recently disbarred. Which brings us to Orleans Parish District Attorney Leon Cannizzaro. Or, more specifically, his spokesperson, Chris Bowman.
Jarvis DeBerry at NOLA.com explains:
Last year – after mayoral candidate Desiree Charbonnet’s campaign accused her opponent City Councilwoman LaToya Cantrell of misusing her city-issued credit card – Christopher Bowman, an assistant district attorney who functioned as the office spokesman, was all over Twitter disparaging Cantrell and mocking her explanations about her use of the card. His tweets coincided with the district attorney’s office announcement that it was referring an anonymous complaint about Cantrell’s credit card use to the Louisiana attorney general’s office.
Unlike Perricone, Bowman didn’t obscure his identity. Which is more honest, I guess, but shockingly reckless. Using @CSBowman, an account that identified him as an assistant district attorney living in New Orleans, Bowman repeatedly and aggressively accused Cantrell of guilt. He tweeted links to stories that local news organizations had published about her credit card use, and he often supplemented those links with his own commentary. In one tweet, he followed a link to a New Orleans Advocate story with the following hashtags: “#RayNagin #PartDeaux #WhatElseDoWeNotKnowAboutThisCandidate #YouWantHerInControlOfYourTaxDollars”
None of this stuff surprises those familiar with the District Attorney’s office. During the mayoral election, DA Leon Cannizzaro publicly supported Cantrell’s opponent at the same time his office made the very public and political decision to refer an investigation to the state Attorney General. (Make no mistake, Cannizzaro himself hammed up the allegations and hinted that they were legitimate and serious.) Beyond that, Bowman’s online behavior is well worth revisiting. DeBerry rightly points out that the office spokesperson bears responsibility for his Twitter feed, particularly because the account made clear his role with the office.
Yet, Bowman’s poor ethical judgment is not an aberration. The problem with prosecutors manipulating the media and misusing social media also extends beyond the Orleans office (which has its own decades-long reputation of misconduct). Indeed, the problem may very well be systemic. Professional discipline against prosecutors who use the media to undermine the presumption of innocence and individuals’ constitutional rights is extraordinarily rare. While the recent discipline of lawyers like Lindquist and Perricone could send a productive message, more and better enforcement is needed. Without meaningful oversight and scrutiny, the Chris Bowmans of the prosecutorial world will continue to do what they want. And, where the disciplinary bodies are not consistently up to the task, perhaps journalists like DeBerry can make the difference. Right now, @CSBowman is nowhere to be found on Twitter.