The State Bar of California has recommended that an Orange County prosecutor be suspended for at least a year, finding that she failed to turn over to defense counsel copies of an inmate's mail that she secretly collected before trial.
Deputy Dist. Atty. Sandra Lee Nassar's withholding of evidence amounted to "extremely serious misconduct," wrote Yvette D. Roland, a judge of the State Bar Court of California, in a ruling filed Tuesday.
"Even when facing difficult situations, such as the protection of witnesses, prosecutors must operate within the confines of the law," Roland wrote.
Nassar, a veteran prosecutor who was admitted to the state bar in 1998, did not respond to an email seeking comment.
A spokeswoman for the Orange County district attorney's office said Thursday it was reviewing the proposed sanction and that Nassar was deciding whether to lodge an appeal within the next 30 days.
"Meantime, her license and ability to practice law remain intact," spokeswoman Michelle Van Der Linden said in a statement.
The misconduct case traces back to June 2011, when Nassar had accused Carmen Iacullo of abusing a 5-year-old child; the boy's mother was also charged. Iacullo had faced up to life in prison if convicted.
Around the time the case was filed, Nassar ordered a "mail cover," instructing staff at the county jail to intercept the incoming and outgoing correspondence to both Iacullo and the boy's mother. Letters were copied and delivered to Nassar before being forwarded to the desired addressee.
The mother pleaded guilty and was released in 2012. The mail cover for Iacullo continued.
In April 2013, Nassar was transferred to a different unit, and another prosecutor took on the case. That prosecutor was surprised by the mail cover, which by then had amassed more than 1,000 pages of correspondence, and spoke with a supervisor. The prosecutor concluded that the materials should have been given to Iacullo's defense attorney.
The judge in the case, Thomas Goethals, chastised Nassar in a court hearing and ruled that she committed a "willful Brady violation." At the hearing, Nassar chalked it up to "trial strategy," according to court papers.
Under the 1963 U.S. Supreme Court ruling in Brady vs. Maryland, prosecutors must turn over any evidence that could aid the defense.
"I don't know if [Nassar] doesn't know what the law is," Goethals said at a court hearing. "That's no excuse. Ignorance of the law for an experienced prosecutor for engaging in Brady misconduct is not a reasonable excuse either."
In one of the letters from 2011, the boy's mother wrote to Iacullo and said she knew he "didn't do what they're saying" because he had not been in the home at the time of the abuse. However, the boy's mother had agreed to testify against Iacullo.
In 2014, Iacullo pleaded guilty to child abuse and was sentenced to 12 years in state prison.
Before the state bar court, Nassar said she considered only the 2011 letter from the boy's mother to be exculpatory, and she said she didn't have to turn over the letter because it was mailed to Iacullo, according to court papers. Therefore, it was in his possession.
Roland, the state bar judge, wrote that the requirement that prosecutors turn over evidence did not have exceptions, so Nassar should have still turned over the evidence.
The judge also found fault with how Nassar viewed her handling of the case.
"This court found deeply disturbing [Nassar's] testimony that she would engage in the same conduct again," stated Roland, adding that the "lack of insight on this subject represents a tremendous threat of future harm to the public and the administration of justice."
According to the recommendation, Nassar would be placed on probation for three years, and at least the first year of that would include a suspension from practicing law. The suspension would be in place until she provides proof of "rehabilitation," according to the judge.
The judge's recommendation will ultimately go to the California Supreme Court for approval.
Nassar, who has no prior record of discipline before the bar, had character references submitted from more than two dozen people. According to court papers, the letters came from prosecutors, criminal defense attorneys and even one Orange County Superior Court judge.
7 p.m.: This article was updated with a statement from the Orange County district attorney's office.