The Tulsa County DA’s Office used interns and other non-lawyers to prosecute perhaps as many as 100 to 150 cases between November 2017 and November 2018, the Frontier reported in an article published on Tuesday. These included jury trials prosecuted by an intern who had failed her bar exam, according to a response by the DA’s office to a bar complaint.
The complaint is scheduled to be heard before a three-member panel in Tulsa from March 11 to 13, according to the report.
The complaint filed on January 23 alleged that Tara Jack, an Assistant District Attorney, committed acts of misconduct when, with “direct supervisory authority over the non-lawyer employees in the Misdemeanor Division including law students and recent law school graduates,” she allowed them to practice law without proper licenses.
This included Kelly Sweeney, who was a recent graduate of Tulsa University School of Law, but “was not and had never been a licensed legal intern nor did she hold any special permit to practice law in the State of Oklahoma.” In September 2018, she learned that she had failed the bar exam.
According to the complaint, despite this knowledge, she continued to make appearances in misdemeanor matters, including “negotiated plea deals with defendants and defendants’ counsels, and argued motions on behalf of the State of Oklahoma. During this time period, KS made court appearances in more than 70 criminal misdemeanor cases in Tulsa County, Oklahoma.”
According to the response from Ms. Jack, she had a conversation with Judge April Seibert on November 13, 2018. The judge related a conversation with Ms. Sweeney where the intern admitted that she had been a legal intern for years, but did not have even an intern license.
Ms. Jack states: “As soon as Judge told me this information, I was mortified and sickened that this had occurred. I immediately brought Kelly into my office and told her that she would not be allowed to go to court unless I was present and I am confused as to why you would think you could participate in a trial. I told her she needed to run everything she did by me from this point on because I could not trust her.”
According to the Frontier, Tulsa County District Attorney Steve Kunzweiler said in a statement: “We were made aware of the concerns and we immediately investigated and took corrective action. However, we cannot discuss in particularity personnel matters.”
The Frontier further notes that court records show that the five interns “were listed as attorneys representing the Tulsa County District Attorney’s Office — and often were listed as the only attorney present representing the state — at scores of criminal misdemeanor hearings and even at some misdemeanor jury and non-jury trials.”
The investigation by the Frontier found around 67 separate specific case numbers “in which an unauthorized intern represented the state at a hearing or trial, though the complaint alleges that happened in at least 156 instances.”
The article highlights a 2018 case where a defendant faced a DUI and a charge for running a stop sign. In this case, one of the interns was listed as “representing the state at jury trial along with an assistant district attorney.” The jury would find the defendant not guilty of the DUI but guilty of running a stop sign.
Months later, in February 2018, the defense complained about the issue and the DA, Steve Kunzweiler, filed a “nunc pro tunc” application in the case, which is used to correct earlier clerical errors, requesting that the case be dismissed “in the best interest of justice.”
The ADA, Tara Jack, claimed in her response to be unaware that the interns did not hold proper licenses.
She writes in her response: “I never would have conceived that this would have ever happened. I am mortified, embarrassed, and sickened that this happened under my supervision. I will do everything in my control to make sure that this NEVER happens again. I am so sorry that this happened.”
She further notes: “At the time, Erik Grayless, First Assistant, was in charge of the intern program in our office. He was the person who would hire interns, assign the intern and conduct the orientation with the intern when they started in our office. Mr. Grayless was the person listed as the supervising attorney on any licensed legal interns paperwork.”
Ms. Jack writes, “I regret all of these actions that I did not take and I regret that I was negligent in supervising and not being clear on who was a licensed intern and who was not, and in return not communicating well with my supervisor and to those I was supervising.”
She also said that during this time, she delegated responsibilities that she should not have and “trusted other ADA’s would know what interns could do and not do.
“I, also, trusted that interns, licensed or not licensed, would know what they could do and not do,” she wrote.
Was this simply a failure to oversee the work of interns? How did the office not know who was licensed and that sending in interns that had not passed the bar exam was inadvisable?
“I am embarrassed and regret that this occurred,” Ms. Jack wrote. “I have been a lawyer for 18 years and I have always strived to be the best attorney I could be and I take my ethical duties very seriously … I am committed to doing everything in my power to make sure this never happens again.”
The DA’s office, Ms. Jack writes, has implemented changes to prevent this from occurring.
“Steve Kunzweiler, DA, implemented a policy that all interns wear colored badges while they are in the courthouse; green for Licensed Legal interns, and red for all other interns.”
DA Steve Kunweiler is widely noted as one of the strongest opponents of criminal justice reform efforts, opposing Oklahoma’s referendums that were overwhelming passed by the voters.
In November of 2016, while Oklahoma was electing Donald Trump by the widest margin of any state in the country, they also voted overwhelmingly to reform their criminal justice system.
Voters approved two referendums—one to make low-level drug offenses misdemeanors instead of felonies and the other to do same for low level property crimes.
But Steve Kunzweiler opposed these reforms.
“Proposition 780 will make Oklahoma the most liberal drug possession state in the union,” Steve Kunzweiler said in a statement at the time.
A Slate article in 2017 reported, “Kunzweiler and other district attorneys have repeatedly tried to draw unfounded connections between low-level drug possession and violence, gang activity, and even murder.”
In 2018, he faced a progressive challenge from Jenny Prohel-Day, but defeated her by a 58.6 to 41.4 margin.
According to an Appeal article from September 2018, Ms. Proehl-Day said “she would limit the use of money bail, implement a unit to review convictions, and not seek life without parole for juveniles.”
—David M. Greenwald reporting
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