He was the only state’s attorney in the history of Maryland reprimanded by the highest court for misconduct, ethical misconduct, in office because he denied a defendant the right to a fair trial because he, for political gain, spoke out.”
—Maryland Lt. Gov. Anthony G. Brown (D) at the May 7 debate
“I have the honor of being reprimanded by the Court of Appeals because I took on a judge who said to an 11-year-old girl who was raped by a sexual Internet predator that it ‘takes two to tango’ and that it was her fault for responding to his e-mails, which is why he went and raped her. The Court of Appeals then reprimanded me for being a public official publicly reading a public charging document at a press conference with the police. I wear it as a badge of honor.”
—Maryland Attorney General Douglas Gansler (D) response at the debate
So who is right?
First, the history: In November 2002, the Attorney Grievance Commission of Maryland filed a complaint against Gansler, who was then the Montgomery County State’s Attorney. The committee accused Gansler of repeatedly speaking too openly about high-profile cases, risking the defendants’ chances for a fair trial.
The Maryland Court of Appeals eventually reprimanded Gansler, an action that was primarily aimed to publicly embarrass him, although Gansler also had to pay some associated court costs. It was the first time the court had disciplined a prosecutor in this way.
“On numerous occasions, Gansler spoke outside of court about matters that had a substantial likelihood of depriving several criminal defendants of fair trials,” Judge Lynne A. Battaglia wrote in a 48-page opinion filed Nov. 12, 2003. “A reported reprimand satisfactorily communicates to Gansler and other [attorneys] that improper extrajudicial statements dangerously jeopardize the foundational principles of our system of criminal justice.”
Gansler has long gravitated toward media attention and often speaks openly about sensitive matters. His friends and allies have pleaded with him to watch what he says, while defense attorneys have sought gag orders to shut him up on big cases.
The reprimand focused on three cases:
1) A June 2001 press conference at which police announced they would charge a man with murdering a woman as she jogged in Montgomery County. Gansler told reporters about the accused man’s confession, which he said included “incredible details that only the murderer would have known.” Another comment from that day: “We’re very confident, obviously more than confident, that we have apprehended the right person.”
2) A press conference in June 2000, soon after police charged a man with beating a Catholic priest to death. Gansler told reporters police “were able to determine definitively” that the man had committed the crime and was wearing a “very unique shoe” that matched prints at the scene. Gansler also talked about the man’s previous record, a sensitive topic to publicly discuss before trial.
3) A newspaper article in April 2000 that quoted Gansler as saying that he had decided to offer a plea bargain to James Edward Perry, who had been sentenced to death for his role in the 1993 killing of an 8-year-old quadriplegic boy, his mother and a nurse, but had his sentence reversed in 1999. Perry was found guilty at a second trial in 2001. He died in 2010.
Not on that list: The case Gansler mentioned at the debate, which involved a judge’s insensitive comments about an “11-year-old girl who was raped by a sexual Internet predator.”
In 2000, Maryland Circuit Court Judge Durke G. Thompson sentenced a 23-year-old man to serve 18 months in the county jail for having sex with an 11-year-old girl he met in an Internet chat. The state sentencing guidelines for second-degree sexual assault call for four to nine years in prison, but Thompson opted for a lesser sentence.
“I don’t think [the victim] is free of fault,” the judge said, according to media reports at the time. “I think the old adage that it takes two to tango is true here.”
Advocates for sexual assault survivors quickly condemned the comments and accused Thompson of consistently mistreating women who face their attackers in court. The Maryland General Assembly’s women’s caucus filed a complaint. And Gansler released a statement: “This was not a tango. This was sex between an adult and a vulnerable little girl.” (Thompson apologized for his comments at the time. He retired in June 2011.)
Gansler often speaks about this case on the campaign trail and recently featured it in a television ad:
Gansler said that his public criticism of the judge was part of a broader effort to challenge an “old boy’s club” atmosphere – an effort that he says angered some in powerful legal circles and made him a target for political retribution. Hence, Gansler says, the complaint that led to the reprimand.
In regards to the three cases at the heart of the reprimand, Gansler has long maintained that he did nothing wrong. At the time, Gansler said: “My view is that I have a legal, moral and ethical obligation to inform the public about what’s going on in the criminal justice system.”
Brown offered a different take at the debate: Gansler spoke out for attention and “political gain.”