NC State Bar admonishes Durham prosecutor after complaint from rape survivor

A North Carolina State Bar committee admonished a Durham prosecutor after a crime victim complained that she wasn’t notified before her perpetrator’s rape convictions were downgraded, allowing him to leave prison.

The State Bar’s grievance committee found “probable cause to believe” that Durham Assistant District Attorney Michael Wallace violated the State Bar’s rules of professional conduct. Specifically Wallace did not ”make a reasonable effort to notify” a victim before finalizing the deal to reduce a sentence for David Felton, the letter states.

The committee issued Wallace an admonition, describing it as a minor violation of the rules of professional conduct, which outline policies and practices for North Carolina attorneys.

The admonition is private, the Feb. 1 letter said. The woman shared the letter with The News & Observer, which in 2022 reported on concerns by her and others over not being notified about changes in sentences supported by Durham’s district attorney’s office.

Wallace is a senior prosecutor who oversees homicides and violent crimes for District Attorney Satana Deberry.

Deberry, a candidate for state attorney general, said in a statement that not notifying victims was an isolated occurrence and that her office has taken steps to address the lapse.

Through Durham DA spokesperson Sarah Willets, Wallace said he complied with the grievance committee’s review and respects its decision.

Katherine Jean, counsel for the State Bar, wrote in an email that state law prevents staff from commenting on confidential grievances.

A 1972 sentence not possible today

Felton, who died in January, was convicted of rape in 1972 under an old sentencing system, which resulted in him being in prison for more than 50 years. That is more than twice than what he would received under current laws, Deberry wrote in an statement about the case in 2022.

Wallace consented to a motion by Felton to have his rape conviction vacated in November 2021, which now-retired Judge Orlando Hudson agreed to. As part of an agreement, Felton pleaded guilty to assault with intent to commit rape and left prison without having to register as a sex offender.

The woman didn’t learn of the change until she was contacted by a nonprofit agency that Felton had contacted asking to investigate his claim of innocence.

She understood why the DA’s office changed his sentence, but said the way the DA’s Office handled it was hurtful, the woman said.

The News & Observer generally does not name survivors of sexual abuse and assault. The woman who released the letter said her concerns included Wallace not contacting or consulting her before the charge was vacated and not informing her when Felton was released.

In her February 2022 grievance, the woman alleged that Wallace also tried to take advantage of her lack of knowledge by saying in a virtual meeting that the law forced the change instead of clearly explaining the role the prosecutor’s discretion played in the process.

The Grievance Committee made a recommendation for discipline at a quarterly meeting in October 2022, according to information provided by the woman. Wallace then requested additional time to decide whether to accept or reject the recommendation, the woman said State Bar officials told her.

Wallace asked the committee to reconsider their proposed recommendation in March 2023, the woman was told by State Bar officials, she said. It’s not clear if officials changed their initial recommendation.

More severe punishments issued by the grievance committee include reprimand, censure or a referral the the discipline hearing commission, which could suspend or disbar an attorney.

Regarding improvements in Durham, Deberry said her office has trained staff on crime victims’ rights and notifications and on making additional efforts to reach victims and their families in post-conviction cases. The office also established a new protocol that requires staff to notify Deberry about victim notification in each case, spokesperson Sarah Willits wrote in an email.

“ADA Wallace has had a respected 40-year legal career and I know he and this office take our responsibilities very seriously,” wrote Deberry.