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Should You Join an Independent Attorney Investigatory Panel?

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By Casey C. Sullivan, Esq. on January 08, 2016 5:59 AM

You may have caught the news on Wednesday: a grand jury indicted the Texas state trooper who arrested Sandra Bland, whose death in her cell three days later lead to a national outcry last summer. A few weeks earlier, a grand jury had refused to indict any of Bland's jailers.

But, lesser known is the role of an independent panel of attorneys who took part in the investigation. Just what do such panels do and might one be in your future?

The Independent Attorney Panel

Shortly after Sandra Bland was found dead in her cell, her family filed a wrongful death suit and officials in Waller County, Texas, opened an investigation. Waller County D.A., Elton Mathis, quickly called for a panel of attorneys to assist in the investigation. Those attorneys, who reviewed evidence connected to her arrest and death, were meant as an independent, outside group of "legal minds that have no set agenda other than reviewing the evidence and seeking justice," Mathis explained.

Such independent panels are not uncommon when government and law enforcement agencies are accused of wrongdoing. When former North Carolina governor Mike Easley was accused of taking lavish, over-seas trips on the public dime, an independent panel of attorneys investigated the loss and destruction of his travel records. More recently, an attorney panel called for the reorganization of the Orange County district attorney's office, following an informant scandal.

Panel Pros and Cons

The panels can allow attorneys to play another valuable role in the legal and justice system -- that of government watchdog. Since many panels involve a fair amount of publicity, they can also be a boost to a lawyer's public profile.

Not everyone is a fan of such panels, however, and it's not just because they're extra work. When the Sandra Bland panel was created, it was envisioned as a four-attorney group. Two lawyers, Texas criminal defense attorneys Darrell Jordan and Lewis White, quickly signed up. But they had difficulty finding anyone to join them, Texas Lawyer reported in July.

Some lawyers criticized the volunteer nature of the panel, including Houston lawyer Dick DeGuerin. "Having local people, I don't care how honorable they are and how much integrity they have, it smells of a cover-up," DeGuerin said, according to Texas Lawyer. The implication is that local attorneys, who will have to work with law enforcement for decades to come, will be less independent and critical than complete outsiders.

The panel was eventually filled, however, and with five lawyers instead of two. They have not yet finished their involvement in the case. "We're just going to finish what we started," The New York Times reports Jordan saying. "Our goal in this process is justice, whatever that might be."

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