Lawyer Client Relationship Remains Confidential Even After Death

June 4, 2008

Twenty-two years ago, a client named Jerry Cushwell told his lawyer that Cushwell had acted alone in committing a double murder. Cushwell pleaded guilty to the murders, but prosecutors also convicted another man, Lee Wayne Hunt, of participating in the murder, and he was serving a life sentence for that murder.

Jerry Cushwell committed suicide in 2002, but he had told the truth to his lawyer about having acted alone in committing the double murder. Still Lee Wayne Hunt continued to serve his life sentence. Finally, Jerry Cushwell’s lawyer, Staple Hughes of North Carolina decided he should speak out to save Hunt from the wrongful sentence. The problem was that a lawyer cannot reveal the secrets told him by a client.

Isn’t the lawyer, Staple Hughes, released from the confidentiality of Jerry Cushwell’s secret in order to save an innocent man? Ordinarily not. Not even if Cushwell died six years ago and the secret is that of a dead man? No.

Cushwell’s lawyer was threatened with discipline from the North Carolina Bar Association when he tried to testify to Cushwell’s secret. The obligation to keep a client’s secrets is so important that it survives death and may not be violated even to cure a grave injustice. Experts believe a lawyer’s duty to keep clients’ confidences is the rock upon which the justice system is built, and making exceptions erodes the trust between lawyers and clients.

Legal ethics rules vary from state to state, but many states permit disclosure of a confidence to prevent certain death or substantial bodily harm. But stopping an execution is not the same as freeing an innocent prisoner. Only Massachusetts allows lawyers to reveal secrets “to prevent the wrongful execution or incarceration of another.” And most courts say the obligation for confidentiality continues even beyond the death of the client.

That was Staple Hughes’ problem in North Carolina. This situation was unlike the Illinois case that freed Alton Logan after serving 26 years of a life sentence for murder. In that case, the lawyers who spoke up said their client had given them permission to speak out after the client died. They did speak out, and Alton Logan has been released on bond and given a new trial.

The North Carolina Bar Association dismissed the complaint against Staple Hughes for his violating the confidence of Jerry Cushwell. However, his testimony went nowhere. The testimony of Staple Hughes to save Lee Wayne Hunt from prison was excluded as hearsay evidence. Mr. Hunt’s life sentence remains in place. The North Carolina Supreme Court refused to hear an appeal of the matter.

Meanwhile the rule protecting the confidentiality of a client’s confidences remains strong. This example certainly reveals how important the court system believes trust is between a client and his attorney. Because this attorney client relationship is so protected it’s always best to be truthful with your lawyer so he’ll be prepared for what the other side will throw at you and he’ll be able to give you the best defense.

Finding the right attorney you trust and are comfortable with is critical,  as you will be sharing extremely personal and sensitive information. That’s why you will want to go to my website at www.netlegalhelp.com where I share with you how to find the right lawyer for your Oklahoma criminal charge.