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Md. high court suspends lawyer for how to get away with murder advice

Maryland’s top court Tuesday suspended for at least four years an out-of-state attorney who advised a Facebook “friend” on the social networking site how she could get away with murdering her allegedly abusive ex-boyfriend.

Winston Bradshaw Sitton, a Nashville lawyer licensed in Maryland since 1995, was suspended earlier this year by the Tennessee Supreme Court for instructing the woman on how she could “lure” her potential victim into her house, kill him and then “claim he broke in with intent to do you bodily harm.” Sitton added that “as a lawyer, I advise you to keep mum about this if you are remotely serious” and advised her to delete his comments and those of others related to potential violence, the Tennessee Supreme Court stated in its Jan. 22 decision.

The Tennessee court suspended Sitton for four years — including one year of active suspension followed by three years’ probation – and ordered him to take a nine-hour course on the ethical use of social media by attorneys.

The Maryland Court of Appeals, at the urging of the state’s Attorney Grievance Commission, handed down a “reciprocal” but stronger suspension of four years with the right to petition for reinstatement after he is unconditionally reinstated to practice law in Tennessee.

The Court of Appeals issued its sanction in a one-page order signed by Chief Judge Mary Ellen Barbera.

Bar Counsel Lydia E. Lawless, the commission’s chief administrative prosecutor, declined to comment on Sitton’s case or the high court’s order.

Sitton on Wednesday did not comment on the order beyond what he posted on his office’s Facebook page the day after the Tennessee Supreme Court rendered its decision.

“I adamantly contest the finding that my gratuitous commentary offered in 2017 to a battered woman who was (allegedly) being threatened and abused and harassed by her son’s father, was legal advice as to how to commit a crime or in any way violated my duties as either a citizen or a lawyer,” Sitton wrote on Sitton & Associates’ page. “I do admit that the language I used, albeit taken out of context, was intemperate and regret the way this utterance was phrased; however, I note that the comment was intentionally caustic and cynical as it was both offered as, and understood by the recipient to be, a sardonic, sarcastic remark made in order to convince the lady NOT to resort to lethal force and not to discuss any such matters in an open forum and to delete the post.”

The Tennessee Supreme Court said Sitton violated ethical rules by counseling Lauren Houston “about how to engage in criminal conduct in a manner that would minimize the likelihood of arrest or conviction.” The court rejected his defense that his Facebook comments were sarcastic and dark in an effort to pacify a person in distress.

“In his capacity as a lawyer, Mr. Sitton offered specific legal advice on how to orchestrate a killing in a way calculated to provide the perpetrator a fabricated defense to criminal charges,” the court said. “Our rules do not permit lawyers to offer advice on how to commit crime with impunity.”

The Facebook exchange began with Houston posting a question on her Facebook page regarding the legality of carrying a gun in one’s car in Tennessee.

Sitton advised that she forgo the gun and get a taser, which he stated is “effective but not deadly.” But then Sitton escalated the exchange by suggesting a way to stage a self-defense argument “if you want to kill him,” the Tennessee court said.

“Even with the new stand-your-ground law, the castle doctrine is a far safer basis for use of deadly force,” Sitton added, referring to defense in one’s home. “Your defense is that you are afraid for your life – revenge or premeditation of any sort will be used against you at trial.”

Sittton also advised Houston to delete the Facebook exchange. But before the deletion, the ex-boyfriend, Jason Henderson, took screenshots of the exchange and brought them to the local prosecutor who turned them over to the state Board of Professional Responsibility, prompting an ethics investigation that led to Sitton’s suspension, the Tennessee court stated.

The court added that Sitton’s experience provides a “cautionary tale” for all attorneys.  “Lawyers who choose to post on social media must realize they are handling live ammunition; doing so requires care and judgment,” the court stated.

“Here, Mr. Sitton’s choice to post his comments on a public platform amplified their deleterious effect,” the court added. “We can think of few things more prejudicial to the administration of justice than fostering a view of lawyers as co-conspirators whose role is to manufacture plausible but untrue defenses against criminal charges for the premeditated use of deadly force. It promotes a cynical view of the justice system as something to be manipulated instead of respected.”

The Court of Appeals followed the Texas court’s action by issuing its own suspension order in Attorney Grievance Commission v. Winston Bradshaw Sitton, Misc. AG Docket 12, September Term 2020.