Seattle murder case throws spotlight on lawyer-client sex

Tuesday, September 10, 2002

SEATTLE -- Defense attorney Theresa Olson, a fiery advocate who sometimes cries openly when she loses a case, was visiting a murder-defendant client behind bars when jail guards looking through a window reported seeing them having sex.

Olson was thrown off the case by the judge.

The episode could delay an already long-postponed murder trial. It has also thrown a spotlight on conduct that only recently was officially recognized by the American Bar Association as an ethical breach.

The alleged affair has derailed Olson's otherwise distinguished career and frustrated those who want to see Sebastian Burns and Atif Rafay stand trial in the 1994 clubbing deaths of Rafay's family. The trial was delayed for nearly six years while Burns and Rafay fought extradition from Canada.

"What an amazing, sad, pathetic case," said Lis Wiehl, a University of Washington law professor.

Could be disbarred

How long it takes Burns' new lawyers to get up to speed on the case will determine whether it is delayed beyond its April 28 trial date.

The state bar association is investigating the jail commander's report about the alleged dalliance in a jail interview room Aug. 10, and Olson could face a range of punishments all the way up to disbarment.

Washington state has had an explicit rule against lawyer-client affairs for two years. The state Supreme Court added the rule in light of the case of Lowell Halverson, a former bar president whose license was suspended for six months for having affairs with clients in divorce cases.

In 2000, the ABA included in its recommended code of ethics for state courts a rule expressly prohibiting lawyers from striking up affairs with their clients. The rule took effect in February.

The ABA said it has no national statistics on how many lawyers have been disciplined for having sex with their clients.

Such trysts typically involve male lawyers and female clients who are going through a divorce -- not a 26-year-old, male triple-murder defendant and his married, 43-year-old counsel.

Wiehl, the UW law professor, asked this, for example: What could happen to the client if the relationship turned sour?

Olson, a 15-year veteran of Seattle's public defender's office, is considered an effective if eccentric lawyer who wears ruffled petticoats and homemade clothes in court. Burns had been her sole client for nearly three years.

Olson's boss, Bob Boruchowitz, declined to say whether she'd be fired.

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