Connecticut Attorney Phil Russell has been suspended from the practice of law for six months as a result of his plea of guilty to misprision of a felony in federal court. The Greenwich litigator had originally been charged with violation of a provision of the Sarbanes-Oxley legislation making it a crime to destroy or otherwise alter evidence in anticipation of a federal investigation.Ouch.
Attorneys throughout the state are still wringing their hands about the Russell case. But the lesson it teaches is simple. Don't destroy evidence.
The lessons seems simple enoughy. The context in which it arose is far from simple.
Russell destroyed a computer belonging to a client after it became apparent that an employee of his client's had used it to view child pronography. The client was no ordinary Joe; it was a Catholic church.
The Russell prosecution shocked me. Frankly, I, too, have sinned, albeit these sins occurred before Sarbanes-Oxley. I have had clients' computers cleaned by techinicians when I suspected law enforcement officers were fiddling about. I have wiped down weapons before turning them over to law enforcement so as to destroy fingerprints. I would not make the same decisions now. The Russell case changed my perspective.
Russell still faces sentencing on his federal plea. He will be sentenced by United States District Court Judge Alan Nevas. Nevas is a no-nonsense jurist, and the federal guidelines call for brief incarceration. This case cries out for a non-Guidelines sentence.
One purpose of sentencing is general deterrence. The Russell case has accomplished that. Mr. Russell should not be imprisoned. No purpose would be served by it. He has a felony conviction; he has lost his license for a time; he has been held out to the world as an example of what can go wrong in an excess of zeal.
Phil Russell is a great lawyer, and a good man. He made a mistake. He's paying for it. We've all learned from it. Case closed.