Tess Leopold

PROSECUTOR

Tess Leopold – NY State Bar #2050151

BOROUGH

Brooklyn

Who: Law professors filed a grievance regarding Tess Leopold’s serious misconduct in prosecuting William Lopez on behalf of the Kings County District Attorney’s Office (KCDAO). Despite this misconduct, at the time of the complaint, Leopold had no record of public discipline in the New York Attorney Detail Report.

What they did: Leopold prosecuted People v. Lopez, resulting in Lopez serving 23 years in prison. This conviction was eventually reversed by the U.S. District Court, which found Lopez’s innocence claim to be both “credible” and “compelling” and described Leopold as an “overzealous and deceitful trial prosecutor” in a case that was “rotten from day one.” The District Court found that Leopold made a false representation to the trial judge about whether the key prosecution witness was aware of an offer of a time-served sentence in exchange for their testimony at Lopez’s trial. At the time of the prosecution, William Lopez was 30 years old. He was finally released from prison at the age of 53 and died just two years later. 

Why it’s wrong: Prosecutors may not mislead the court or jury and multiple prohibitions on prosecutorial conduct relate to dishonesty. Because they are representatives of the state, not lawyers for an individual, prosecutors possess a “special duty” not to mislead a judge, jury, or defense counsel. In choosing to suspend former prosecutor Claude Stuart for making misleading statements to the court, the Appellate Division noted that such conduct “strikes at the heart of his credibility as a prosecutor and an officer of the court.” 

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 identifies the following then-applicable ethical rules that Leopold’s conduct likely violated:

  • Rule DR 7-102 (from the Code of Professional Responsibility, later replaced by the Rules of Professional Conduct) prohibited attorneys from knowingly making false statements to the court or using evidence they knew to be false.
  • Rule DR 1-102 prohibited attorneys from engaging in conduct involving dishonesty, fraud, deceit or misrepresentation.
  • Rule DR 1-102 prohibited attorneys from engaging in conduct that was prejudicial to the administration of justice, or engaging in any other conduct that adversely reflected on their fitness to practice law.

What can be done about it: The grievance calls for the committee to issue a grave sanction, such as a lengthy suspension of Leopold’s law license or disbarment. It also calls for a broader investigation into other cases prosecuted by the same prosecutor, and to determine whether KCDAO supervising and managing attorneys complied with their duties under Rule 5.1 of Professional Conduct.

Note: This is a summary based on the grievance, see the grievance for more detail and context. The grievance authors do not have personal knowledge of any of the facts or circumstances of the attorney or the cases mentioned; the grievance is based entirely on court opinions, briefs and/or other documents cited therein.