Charlie Buttrey

July 8, 2017

A recent RadioLab podcast reminded me of this case, one that we discussed in Ethics class in law school.

In 1973. Frank Armani and Francis Belge were appointed to defend Robert Garrow for the murder of Philip Domblewski, an 18-year-old college student who was camping in the Adirondacks with three friends when Garrow attacked them and tied them all to trees. His companions escaped, but Domblewski didn’t.

In the course of debriefing by his lawyers, Garrow admitted killing Domblewski. He also told his lawyers that, in a separate incident, he had murdered another camper—and abducted, raped and murdered the man’s female com­panion. Garrow also admitted that he had abducted, raped and murdered a 16-year-old girl. Garrow even told his lawyers where he had dumped the bodies of his two female victims—information they confirmed by photographing the remains at the locations he had identified.

Consistent with their ethical obligation of confidentiality, the lawyers told nobody about their client’s confession; nor did they reveal that they had located the bodies of his two missing victims—even after the father of one of the victims begged them for information about the fate of his missing daughter. And even after the victims’ bodies were accidentally discovered several months later in separate locations hundreds of miles apart.

During his trial in 1974, under direct questioning by Belge, Garrow confessed to murdering Domblewski, the other male camper and the two women who had been missing, as well as to a number of rapes and abductions throughout upstate New York. The day after Garrow finished testifying, Armani and Belge acknowledged publicly that they had known all along about the murders and the locations of the victims’ bodies.

Garrow was convicted on one murder charge and sentenced to 25 years to life in prison. He was shot to death by police in September 1978, shortly after making a daring prison escape.

Meanwhile, although Armani and Belge received widespread support from the legal profession for their principled, ethical stand, they were widely reviled outside the profession for withholding the information. Their once-thriving law practices withered. They received hate mail and death threats. Longtime friends stopped speaking to them. They had to move out of their homes. Belge eventually gave up his law practice altogether, while Armani slowly rebuilt his.

A grand jury investigated both men, ultimately indicting Belge, who had been alone when he found one of the bodies. He admitted moving the remains to get a better picture and was charged with failing to report a dead body, then failing to provide it with a decent burial. Charges against Belge were dismissed in 1975 by the trial court judge, who lauded Belge for the zeal with which he had protected his client’s rights.

The parents of one victim subsequently filed an ethics complaint against both lawyers. It took four years, but that complaint too was eventually dismissed. In its decision, the Committee on Professional Ethics of the New York State Bar Association said the assurance of confidentiality helps encourage proper representation, which requires full disclosure of all relevant facts by the client—even if those facts include the commission of prior crimes.

There is no doubt that what Armani and Belge did was absolutely correct. As the trial court noted when it dismissed the criminal charge against Belge, “The effectiveness of counsel is only as great as the confidentiality of its client-attorney relationship. If the lawyer cannot get all the facts about the case, he can only give his client half of a defense. This, of necessity, involves the client telling his attorney everything remotely connected with the crime.” And, of necessity, it means that the client knows that whatever he says to his client will never be revealed without the client’s advice and consent.

To paraphrase what Winston Churchill said about democracy, the American criminal justice system is the absolute worst form of determining guilt or innocence ever devised by humankind.  Except for all the others.

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