To NY Times
By ALISON LEIGH COWAN
The New York Times
September 28, 2007
STAMFORD, Conn., Sept. 27 — A Connecticut lawyer who destroyed a laptop containing pornographic images of children last year while he was advising the Greenwich church that discovered them pleaded guilty Thursday in federal court.
The lawyer, Philip D. Russell, 48, pleaded guilty to one count of misprision, or assisting the commission of a felony by failing to report it or by concealing it.
Had he continued to fight the charge, he would have stood trial on two counts of obstruction of justice, charges that could have resulted in much harsher penalties. Misprision is a felony, and Mr. Russell still faces the possible loss or suspension of his law license.
Federal prosecutors indicted Mr. Russell in February on the grounds that his admitted destruction of the computer’s hard drive last October impeded their ability to investigate people connected with Christ Church in Greenwich. (It is an Episcopal church that has counted members of the extended Bush and Kennedy families among its members.)
Church officials discovered pornographic images of naked boys on a laptop used by Robert F. Tate, the church’s longtime musical director. Mr. Russell, a prominent lawyer whose wife was active in the church and whose daughter sang in its choir, advised the church’s leadership on how to handle the problem.
After confronting Mr. Tate about the images, he helped obtain Mr. Tate’s resignation. Mr. Russell told prosecutors that he also took the laptop back to his office in Greenwich and pulverized the hard drive. Neither he nor the church’s top official, the Rev. Jeffrey H. Walker, told law enforcement officials about the pornographic images.
Standing before Judge Alan H. Nevas of Federal District Court in Bridgeport on Thursday, Mr. Russell said, “I’m not contesting what happened here, but I did not foresee that there was going to be law enforcement involved, and I apologize for that oversight, and I freely admit everything else that I am accused of.”
When asked afterward why he decided to end the legal battle, he said, “I’m a lawyer, not a martyr.”
This widely watched case has alerted the legal community for several reasons beyond the mere fact that one of their own, an experienced defense lawyer and former prosecutor, could have tripped over the law.
“The error here began when he took the case,” said Robert M. Casale, Mr. Russell’s defense lawyer. “He was way too close to be objective. The church has been like a second family to him.”
Mr. Tate, who pleaded guilty to possession of child pornography in January, is awaiting sentencing. Mr. Walker announced plans to retire, according to the church’s current lawyer, Eugene Riccio.
Mr. Russell expects to be sentenced on Dec. 17. The maximum sentence is three years, but under the sentencing guidelines, a sentence of 8 to 14 months is likely, and he is also eligible for probation as an alternative. That outcome would not have been possible had he been convicted of obstruction of justice and faced a probable sentence of 27 to 33 months with no chance of probation, Mr. Casale said.
Georgia Kral contributed reporting from Greenwich and Bridgeport.