KANSAS CITY, Mo. (AP) — A disciplinary panel is recommending Platte County Prosecutor Eric Zahnd be publicly reprimanded after finding him guilty of professional misconduct for publicly naming and criticizing certain residents of a northwest Missouri town who defended a convicted child sex offender.
The panel's recommendation now goes to the Missouri Supreme Court for a final decision, KCUR-FM reported .
The three-person panel heard testimony in November on a complaint from the Missouri's Office of Chief Disciplinary Counsel, which oversees attorney conduct. The complaint accused Zahnd of committing several ethical violations when he tried to pressure residents of Dearborn to withdraw supportive letters for Darren Paden, who was awaiting sentencing after he admitted that he abused a girl for more than a decade.
The panel's opinion said a prosecutor's office should not use the threat of retribution against members of the public who aren't subject to potential criminal charges.
"The threat of a public shaming of a non-suspect, non-criminal citizen should not be a tool of the Prosecutor's Office, used to force citizens to obey its will," the panel wrote.
If the state Supreme Court issues a public reprimand of Zahnd, it wouldn't hinder his ability to practice law but would a rare action against a sitting prosecutor.
Zahnd, who has been the Platte County prosecutor for more than 15 years, said in an email that he disagreed with the recommendation because "I believe the ethical rules and the First Amendment protect elected officials who tell the truth to the public about what happens in open court." He said he is still determining his next steps.
Paden was sentenced to 50 years in prison after he pleaded guilty to two counts of statutory sodomy. While he was awaiting sentencing in October 2015, 16 Dearborn residents wrote letters or testified at his sentencing hearing asking for leniency, saying Paden had long been a positive part of the town of 500 residents.
Before the sentencing, Zahnd's office warned those residents if they didn't withdraw the letters, Zahnd would issue a news release listing their names and occupations and indicating they supported a child molester. None of the letters were withdrawn and Zahnd issued the press release after Paden was sentenced.
During his testimony before the disciplinary panel, Zahnd said he did not intend to shame the letter writers with the news release. He said he wanted to provide transparency in a high-profile case, show prominent members of the community don't get special treatment, create a deterrent for other would-be child molesters and give other sex crime victims an incentive to come forward.
The disciplinary panel said the same objectives could have been achieved without listing the names of the letter writers or indicating they appeared to "choose the side of a child molester over the child he repeatedly abused," as the letter said.
The panel did find no evidence indicated Zahnd's office had engaged in a pattern of intimidation or witness shaming. It said the office was well run, took its prosecution responsibilities seriously and had been recognized statewide for its practices.