Dave Helling

Platte County prosecutor wants U.S. Supreme Court to validate his inappropriate behavior

Platte County Prosecutor Eric Zahnd
Platte County Prosecutor Eric Zahnd The Star

Earlier this year, the Missouri Supreme Court slapped the wrist of Platte County prosecutor Eric Zahnd following a bitter dispute over a child molestation case.

Now Zahnd wants the U.S. Supreme Court to take a look.

To review: In 2015, a man named Darren Paden pleaded guilty to sexually molesting a child for at least 10 years. Paden agreed to enter the plea in exchange for a possible sentence of 60 years.

Paden’s lawyer, John O’Connor, asked the defendant’s friends to write to the judge, asking for leniency. This apparently enraged Zahnd, who pressured the letter writers to rethink their requests. Later, he put out a press release accusing Paden’s friends of choosing “the side of a child molester.”

The Missouri Supreme Court reprimanded Zahnd. The prosecutor wants the U.S. Supreme Court to review the case as a violation of his First Amendment rights.

The justices will sort out the conflicting legalities of Zahnd’s claim. For now, though, let’s consider a different question: Even if sending out the press release turns out to be legal, was it the right thing to do?

Criticizing third parties in a press statement would have no effect on Paden, the defendant. He was going to prison, almost certainly for the rest of his life, no matter what. He was sentenced to 50 years.

Zahnd says the letters, and public support for Paden, hurt the victim. But it isn’t clear how a post-conviction press release would reduce her pain. In fact, keeping the case alive in the community and the news media may have made it worse.

Sending a tough-on-crime message? Paden’s sentence was supposed to accomplish that task.

No. The main purpose of the statement seems obvious: Zahnd, who is elected to his post, thought it would help his political career.

It’s possible that Zahnd’s communications are protected under the First Amendment. Just because something is legal, though, doesn’t make it right, a concept that has disappeared from much of our political decision-making.

This month, America argued about the legality of President Donald Trump’s payoffs to paramours through former lawyer Michael Cohen. Even if those payments are legal, ask yourself: Should any presidential candidate make cash payments to porn stars?

Should a president engage in sexual behavior with an intern in the White House, even if he breaks no laws? The answer is no. Should a governor ever have an extramarital affair with a woman, tape her hands to pull-up rings and take her picture without her consent? Again, no.

Politicians, like all humans, make mistakes. Like all humans, politicians can recover from those mistakes by apologizing for the behavior and promising to do better, not by hiding behind legalities and excuses.

This is particularly true for prosecutors. They’re given enormous power in our legal system. In return, they’re expected to pursue justice for all, not political aggrandizement.

Zahnd’s statement was intended to help him at the ballot box. It did nothing to further the cause of justice.

Now Zahnd wants the U.S. Supreme Court to endorse his decision and his behavior. But the smudge on his record will remain, no matter what the justices decide.

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