Platte County prosecutor weighs appeal after reprimand in girl's sex abuse case

Platte County Prosecutor Eric Zahnd said Wednesday he may ask the U.S. Supreme Court to review his reprimand by the Missouri Supreme Court for violating certain rules of professional conduct.

Zahnd and his office were accused of intimidating and threatening supporters of a Dearborn man after he pleaded guilty in 2015 to repeatedly sexually abusing a child for at least a decade.

After being found guilty of violating professional conduct rules in December, the Missouri Supreme Court heard arguments on his discipline on May 1. The court issued its decision Tuesday to reprimand Zahnd rather than suspend his law license.

"I have great respect for the Missouri Supreme Court, but I do not believe I violated the rules as found in its order," Zahnd said in a written statement. "While I appreciate that the Court flatly rejected the recommendation of the Chief Disciplinary Counsel to suspend my law license, I am evaluating my options to seek further review of the Court’s decision, including review by the United States Supreme Court."

The reprimand does not affect Zahnd's ability to practice law or his ability to serve as prosecutor.

"This case involves important issues of an elected prosecutor’s right to speak truthfully about cases in our courts," he said. "Unfortunately, the Court’s order does not address my contention that my work to stand up for a victim was protected by the First Amendment and the rules themselves. Let me be clear: I never threatened anybody; I simply told the truth."

Defense attorney John P. O’Connor filed ethics complaints against Zahnd and Assistant Prosecutor Christopher Seufert in 2016, saying they tried to intimidate several people who wrote letters seeking leniency for Darren L. Paden before he was sentenced for abusing a girl at least 200 to 300 times over a decade, starting before she turned 5 years old. Despite the letters, Paden was sentenced in October 2015 to 50 years in prison.

O’Connor’s complaints were filed with the Missouri Office of Chief Disciplinary Counsel. The disciplinary hearing was held in November before a three-member panel.

O'Connor accused Zahnd and Seufert of threatening to publish the supporters’ names in local newspapers as supporters of a pedophile if they did not withdraw their letters of support for Paden.

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.

The victim's mother, Paula Dresher, said Zahnd acted properly in calling out those who wrote letters on behalf of Paden.

"Eric Zahnd did what I wish every prosecutor would do for victims," Dresher said in a statement. "He stood up for my daughter when people in our own hometown turned against her. Those people drove my daughter to the brink of suicide, and Mr. Zahnd may have saved her life. Anyone who would criticize Mr. Zahnd for what he did doesn’t know what it’s like to be a victim."

Darren L. Paden of Dearborn

Zahnd maintained that he and his office did nothing improper and said he included information about the letter-writers in his news release to show the public that criminal defendants supported by prominent community members would not receive preferential treatment.

"Let me be clear: I never threatened anybody; I simply told the truth," Zahnd said. "Had I believed for one moment that my conduct in standing up for the victim of child sex abuse could possibly be interpreted as violating the rules, I would have done things differently."

"But make no mistake, I will always do everything I can to stand up for victims — particularly when a child feels that prominent citizens in her hometown have turned against her," he said.

In December 2017, the panel found that Zahnd violated certain rules of professional responsibility but not others and recommended he be reprimanded. Zahnd disagreed with the recommendation.

The chief disciplinary counsel then asked the state Supreme Court to suspend Zahnd’s law license for at least six months but the Supreme Court ruled Tuesday to reprimand him.

Several organizations, including the Missouri Association of Prosecuting Attorneys and the Missouri Press Association filed briefs on behalf of Zahnd and were dismayed by Tuesday's order to reprimand him.

"Clearly the information contained in court pleadings that was stated by Mr. Zahnd was public information and clearly the newspapers had a First Amendment right to access and report it," Jean Maneke, an attorney for the press association, said in a statement. "I wish the court had been clearer on when exactly a prosecutor who states public information rises to the level of embarrassing or burdening a third party."

Amy Fite, president of the Missouri Association of Prosecuting Attorney, said the ruling makes it unclear what prosecutors can say or do on behalf of victims of child sex abuse and other crimes.

"This is troubling and will work a hardship on prosecutors to do what they are charged to do — advocate on behalf of justice and ensure the protection of victims of crime," said Fite, the prosecutor for Christian County, located near Springfield. "Because the Supreme Court’s order will have a chilling effect on all prosecutors in Missouri, we will need to examine with policy makers whether it’s time to update these rules in this era of heightened awareness of the rights of crime victims."