Grievance Against Melanie Soberal

Who: A group of law professors filed a grievance in March 2023 against attorney Melanie Soberal, alleging that Soberal engaged in misconduct while prosecuting Dexter Murray on behalf of the District Attorney’s Office of New York County (DANY). The complaint was filed with the Grievance Committee for the First Judicial Department, the body that handles ethics complaints against attorneys in Manhattan and the Bronx. The following summary is based on the complaint.

What: The ethics complaint, also known as a grievance, is based on a court decision, People v. Murray

According to the complaint, in the Murray case, the Appellate Division determined that Soberal improperly excluded a Black prospective juror on the basis of race in the 2018 trial, concluding “[w]e cannot accept as ‘race-neutral’ a prosecutorial explanation that was a ‘pretext masking a discriminatory intent.’” The Appellate Division further explained, “The prosecutor’s explanation is essentially an attempt to convince this Court with the preposterous proposition that only jurors with ‘higher level jobs’ can effectively consider all the evidence in this case. . . . In addition to the absence of any reason related specifically to the case, the proffered reason was grounded in a stereotype of dubious validity, and there is no evidence that the prospective juror possessed the qualities supposedly inherent in that stereotype.” The complaint notes that Soberal’s conduct constituted a violation of Batson v. Kentucky, requiring reversal of the conviction after Murray had already served his one-year sentence. 

What rules are involved: The complaint notes that for many years, the United States’ long-held tradition of jury trials mostly meant juries of property-owning white male citizens sitting in judgment of anyone asserting their right to a jury trial. Race, gender, religion, and property ownership were often accepted as reasonable means to decide who could, and who could not, decide the fates of Americans as a juror. Despite over a century of litigation declaring discriminatory jury strikes unconstitutional, the practice among prosecutors continues.

Prosecutors wield immense power, the power to seek punishment on behalf of the state, and should be held to the highest ethical standards. The grievance alleges that Soberal’s conduct violated the following ethical rules:

  • Rule of Professional Conduct 8.4(d) prohibits lawyers from engaging in conduct inherently prejudicial to the administration of justice; and
  • Rule of Professional Conduct 8.4(h) prohibits lawyers from engaging in conduct that adversely reflects on the attorney’s fitness.

The complaint calls for the Grievance Committee to investigate the conduct under Rule of Professional Conduct 8.4(g), barring “unlawful discrimination.”

The complaint further notes that Soberal’s pretextual reason for the strike arguably constitutes dishonesty in violation of Rule 3.3(a)(1) (knowingly making a false statement of fact to a tribunal), Rule 4.1 (knowingly making a false statement of fact to a person other than a client—here, the trial judge), Rule 8.4(b) (engaging in illegal conduct that adversely reflects on the lawyer’s honesty or trustworthiness or fitness as a lawyer),  and Rule 8.4(c) (engaging in conduct involving dishonesty, fraud, deceit or misrepresentation). 

What can be done about it: The law professors’ complaint calls on the Grievance Committee to investigate and issue serious public discipline. It also calls for a broader investigation into this attorney’s other cases and whether this attorney’s supervisors complied with their duties under Rule 5.1. 

Update: As of January 1, 2024, the Grievance Committee has not informed the complainants whether there was (or will be) an investigation, what any investigation revealed, and whether discipline was (or will be) imposed as a result of this alleged misconduct. Deprived of such information, the public has no way to evaluate whether this government body is doing its job. We call on the Grievance Committee to make its proceedings and findings in this matter transparent to the public.

Any member of the public is able to see an attorney’s record of public discipline on the Attorney Detail Report.

Note: This is a summary based on the grievance, click on the grievance below for more detail. The grievance authors do not have personal knowledge of any of the facts or circumstances of the attorney or case(s) mentioned; the grievance is based on court opinions, briefs and/or other documents cited therein.