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Prosecutor’s censure was overkill

Johnson City Press • Jul 20, 2018 at 8:15 AM

We cannot agree with the Tennessee Supreme Court’s Board of Professional Responsibility’s decision to censure Assistant District Attorney General Dennis Brooks.

On Tuesday, the board announced that it had issued the public censure over Brooks’ book about the “Facebook murders” in Johnson County. The 1st Judicial District prosecutor published “Too Pretty to Live: The Catfish Murders of East Tennessee” in 2016 after successfully leading the case against two women accused of killing a young couple in 2012.

The book hit the shelves while the women’s cases were under direct appeal to the Tennessee Court of Criminal Appeals. It prompted defense attorneys to seek a new trial on grounds Brooks allegedly had revealed details that had not been disclosed to the defense during the trial, temporarily halting the appeals process. A judge later ruled against the motion for a new trial.

In Tuesday’s statement, the Board of Professional Responsibility cited the 18-month delay in the case and stated Brooks had violated two rules, opining that the book represented both a conflict of interest and prejudice to the administration of justice.

We agree with the board that Brooks jumped the gun a bit by publishing his book while appeals process remained in question, resulting in an unfortunate clog in the justice system. In the judge’s eyes, though, Brooks’ book had no ill effect on the conviction and the case moved ahead.

In the interests of full disclosure, we should note that Brooks is a former Johnson City Press sports writer who worked here before attending law school and joining the District Attorney General’s office.

But we also have known him as a professional prosecutor with a good record in our local courts. Along with successfully prosecuting the Johnson County case, he has been the state’s lead prosecutor on numerous high-profile criminal cases, including the Howard Hawk Willis double murder convictions.

Brooks always has been as open with the Press and the public as possible — when allowed by law — in explaining the cases on his watch. He says his book was written in that same spirit with full support from his boss at time, the late District Attorney General Tony Clark. We do not agree that a prosecutor’s written perspective on a case represents a conflict of interest any more than his public statements issued after a trial. If the board’s conflict concern regarded Brooks’ financial interests from the book’s sales, it never stated such in the censure. Nothing about his book represented disreputable conduct, malfeasance or a specific violation of Tennessee law. In our view, the board’s decision was a subjective action.

A public censure is a rebuke and warning to the attorney, but it does not affect the attorney’s ability to practice law. Brooks was not held in contempt, suspended or disbarred, but a public censure in this case seems to be an unwarranted blemish on his otherwise commendable record of service to the 1st District.

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