Platte County Prosecutor Eric Zahnd is defending himself against allegations that he and his office intimidated and threatened supporters of a Dearborn man who in 2015 admitted to repeatedly sexually abusing a child for at least a decade.
Defense attorney John P. O’Connor filed ethics complaints against Zahnd and Assistant Prosecutor Christopher Seufert last year, saying they intimidated witnesses who wrote letters seeking leniency for Darren L. Paden. In October 2015, Paden was sentenced to 50 years in prison for abusing the girl at least 200 to 300 times over a decade, starting before she turned 5 years old.
O’Connor represented Paden. Retired Platte County Judge Abe Shafer, who represented one of the letter writers, also filed an ethics complaint against Seufert. The complaints with the Missouri Office of Chief Disciplinary Counsel remain under review and their contents sealed.
But in court documents saying that Zahnd’s office is retaliating against his clients, O’Connor outlines why he and Shafer filed the complaints. He accuses Zahnd and Seufert of threatening to publish the witnesses’ names in local newspapers as supporters of a pedophile if they did not withdraw their letters of support.
Zahnd said he did nothing wrong.
“Transparency in our courts to the fullest extent allowed by the law is vital to our democracy,” Zahnd said in a statement he first released to KCUR radio after a reporter inquired about the complaint. “The truth, as reported over and over by the media, is that Darren Paden is serving 50 years in prison as a confessed child abuser and clinically-diagnosed pedophile.”
Zahnd said Missouri law prohibits him from discussing his interaction with Paden’s supporters.
“That rule applies regardless of whether the complaints are valid or completely baseless,” he said.
“I am firmly convinced that my office handled every aspect of Mr. Paden’s case in a lawful and completely ethical manner that resulted in justice for the victim, the defendant, and the State of Missouri,” Zahnd said.
Paden’s relatives, church members and friends of his highly respected parents wrote the letters to the court. They described Paden, a former chief of the volunteer fire department and a father of seven, as a good man who was well liked throughout the small Platte County farm community.
“Generally speaking, I fully appreciate that people who want to provide character evidence for a convicted child predator would prefer to argue for leniency outside the public eye and without being confronted with challenging facts,” Zahnd said. “But that’s not the way our system of justice works.”
Recently, several people attempted to have a court consider their letters about a serial child molester without making them public, he said, referring to the criminal case involving former U.S. Rep. Dennis Hastert. A federal judge refused to consider leniency letters unless they were part of the public record. Nineteen people then withdrew their letters.
“Our country has always believed in open court proceedings and the right to confront witnesses — even if that makes some witnesses uneasy,” he said.
O’Connor said because the complaint remains under review, he could not comment. However in court filings, he said that the former counsel at the state ethics agency advised O’Connor that he was obligated to report Zahnd and Seufert for intimidating witnesses. But the court found evidence that O’Connor made the decision to file the complaint four months prior to speaking with the former legal counsel.
O’Connor currently represents several criminal defendants in Platte County, including the potential death penalty case against Grayden L. Denham, who is charged with four counts of first-degree murder in the shooting deaths of his grandparents, his older sister and 3-month-old nephew.
O’Connor asked a judge to remove Zahnd’s office from his cases because the prosecutors began treating him differently after he filed the complaint, he wrote in court documents.
In March, O’Connor’s request was denied in both the Platte County circuit court and the Missouri Court of Appeals.
The court’s order describe on two occasions O’Connor used profanity aimed at Seufert prior to Paden’s sentencing. an expletive-filled tirade, O’Connor accused Seufert of acting inappropriately, according to court records.