05/24/04 — Justice: Prosecutor will get a dead man’s secrets

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Justice: Prosecutor will get a dead man’s secrets

Lawyer Richard Gammon fought tirelessly to do what he and many other lawyers thought was right. He resisted giving a prosecutor records of his conversations with a client who is dead.

Now, yielding to the North Carolina Supreme Court, he is preparing to do so.

Gammon has maintained that turning over the records would weaken the legal promise of confidentiality between lawyers and clients. That opinion is shared by several of the state’s law professors who were interviewed by The Associated Press.

But Superior Court Judge Donald Stephens disagreed, and this month, the Supreme Court sided with him. Gammon has said that he would comply.

It is hoped that what he reveals will help bring justice in the death of Eric Miller. That is what the case is about.

Miller, who was 30, died in 2000 of arsenic poisoning. It is Wake County District Attorney Colon Willoughby’s job to find out if he was murdered and, if so, by whom.

The prosecutor believes that Miller’s wife, Ann, had an affair with Derril Willard Jr.

Willard committed suicide a few weeks after Miller died. In the time between Miller’s death and Willard’s suicide, Willard consulted with his lawyer, Gammon.

Willoughby wants to know some of what was said. When Gammon refused to divulge it, on the ground that his conversations were covered by attorney-client privilege, Willoughby went to court.

The courts ordered Gammon to provide a record of the conversations to Judge Stephens, who could determine whether the lawyer was bound to secrecy. The judge read it and ruled that what Gammon provided did not incriminate his client, Willard, and that it was not subject to attorney-client confidentiality.

Gammon appealed, and it was on this appeal that the Supreme Court ruled this month.

Gammon fought a good fight for a good cause. Attorney-client confidentiality is a bedrock principle of our justice system. It ensures that an accused person can speak freely with his lawyer without fear of entrapment, and that what he says cannot be used against him out of context. It is a principle that has served us well, and it should not be abandoned.

But the Willard matter seems to have been sufficiently examined and evaluated, by neutral and trustworthy judges, to ensure that no harm would be done if Gammon revealed a portion of what his client told him.

This could open the way to another principle of our justice system — that the guilty be punished.

All that could be done to protect the rights of Derril Willard Jr. was done. Now it is time to consider Eric Miller and his loved ones.

Published in Editorials on May 24, 2004 11:10 AM