When Client Confidentiality Challenges Morals

May 27th, 2008 by Kathy McManus

Should a lawyer violate client trust if it might clear an innocent man?

Brought to you by Liberty Mutual's
The Responsibility Project

If you had critical information that could free an innocent man from prison, would you reveal it to a judge, even if doing so was illegal? 

A North Carolina lawyer named Staples Hughes wrestled with that question for 22 years, while a man he believes is innocent of a double murder continued to serve two life sentences in prison. 

“I don’t know whether ethical behavior is always the same as being a moral hero,” Hughes said. “Maybe if I was some kind of moral hero, I would have told.” 

What Hughes didn’t tell is that in the 1980’s, a client of his confided that he alone had committed a double murder for which that other man was serving the two life sentences. But Hughes could not reveal the confession because he was bound to secrecy by attorney-client privilege, a legal rule that prevents an attorney from disclosing any confidential information obtained from a client. 

So for 22 years, Hughes kept the information to himself, while the man he believed to be innocent—Lee Wayne Hunt—remained in prison. 

Then Hughes’ client died, and with him, Hughes reasoned, the confines of attorney-client privilege. 

“It seemed to me at that point ethically permissible and morally imperative that I spill the beans,” Hughes explained

Appearing before a judge, Hughes finally revealed his secret, explaining that his client was dead. “My disclosure can’t hurt him,” Hughes told the court, “And I have to weigh that disclosure against the continuing harm” to Lee Wayne Hunt. 

Wrong, said the judge, who refused to consider Hughes’ new testimony and then reported him to the state bar for disciplinary action, saying he had violated attorney-client privilege, even though the client was dead. 

Experts in legal ethics echoed the judge’s decision, saying that attorney-client privilege is so sacred it remains in effect even after a client’s death, and can only be broken to stop an execution--not to free an innocent man from life behind bars. 

The North Carolina state bar recently dismissed the judge’s complaint against Hughes, but Lee Wayne Hunt remains in prison. 

“I go home, have a glass of wine, work in the yard,” Hughes said. “And there’s a guy sitting in a prison camp two counties away, and my feeling is he’s going to be there for the rest of his life.” 

Tell us what you think: Do you agree that a dead man’s confidence should outweigh a potentially innocent man’s chance for freedom? What would you do if the law said doing the right thing was actually the wrong thing?