A former Charleston County prosecutor has been suspended from practicing law for six months for communicating with a cousin who was sitting on a jury during a 2007 murder trial.
Former 9th Circuit Assistant Solicitor Michael Nelson was not a member of the legal team prosecuting the trial. But the S.C. Supreme Court found the 30 phone conservations and texts he exchanged with his cousin during breaks in the proceeding violated the rules of professional conduct for attorneys. The order was handed down last week.
Nelson’s cousin, Austin Davey of Mount Pleasant, did not disclose his relationship before he was selected for the jury, and their family ties didn’t come to light until the case was well underway, authorities stated. He was removed from the panel before deliberations began.
Nelson’s attorney, Dawes Cooke, said their conversations during the trial involved Nelson’s upcoming wedding, not the murder case itself.
The contact had no apparent effect on the outcome of the case and the high court cited no ill-intent on Nelson’s part, a point his former boss and the defense attorney in the case agree on.
“From everything I gathered, it was a bone-headed, naive mistake, but nothing that was malicious or untoward,” 9th Circuit Solicitor Scarlett Wilson said.
The trial in question involved a murder charge against David Rocquemore, then-28, who fatally shot 36-year-old Hershall Demar Denson after a Ladson house party broke up in August 2005. After a week-long trial, a jury found Rocquemore guilty of a lesser charge of voluntary manslaughter and a weapons offense and he was sentenced to 10 years in prison.
Rocquemore unsuccessfully argued on appeal that a mistrial should have been declared because the state failed to disclose Nelson’s relationship with Davey and that they continued to communicate during the trial in violation of court rules. The appeals court, however, found his case was not prejudiced as a result and upheld his convictions. He remains in prison.
The state Office of Disciplinary Counsel began its investigation into the episode after Rocquemore’s appeals concluded.
Nelson, who had worked for the Solicitor’s Office since 2004, resigned in June when he learned the Supreme Court would take up the matter.
His suspension is retroactive to his June 1 resignation date. Nelson also is required to reimburse the state for the costs of investigating and prosecuting his violation, and he has nine months in which to complete a program in legal ethics, the opinion states.
Nelson declined comment on the episode. His cousin couldn’t be reached for comment.
Cooke said Nelson had no intention of undermining the case and is eager to put the matter behind him. “He assumed everybody else knew about his cousin,” Cooke said.
Nelson told court officials he had advised his cousin to disclose their relationship before jury duty began and he assumed he had done so, the suspension order states.
Nelson said he figured the relationship was common knowledge because the trial judge, Daniel Pieper, had texted him and asked him to leave the courtroom when he ventured into the trial one day, the order states. He explained that he and Pieper were friends and that it was not uncommon for him to text with the trial judge, the order states.
Pieper, who now sits on the S.C. Court of Appeals, has said his comment to Nelson that day was made in jest, the order states.
Wilson said the prosecutors handling the case knew Nelson’s cousin was in the larger jury pool but assumed he wasn’t in the running for their panel because he didn’t speak up when potential jurors were questioned about possible conflicts.
Wilson, who traveled to Columbia to speak on Nelson’s behalf during a July disciplinary hearing before the high court, said Nelson’s conduct clearly violated the rules but it essentially involved an innocent mistake.
Andy Savage, Rocquemore’s defense attorney, said Nelson made no attempt to hide the relationship when asked about it, and he doesn’t believe Nelson meant any harm.
“I always thought the world of Michael in terms of openness, fairness and integrity,” Savage said. “That didn’t change as a result of this.”