Posted: Feb. 20, 2003
A QUIET ADMONITION
By Celia Cohen
Grapevine Political Writer
The lightest possible punishment was handed
out by the lawyers' disciplinary system to Wayne N. Elliott, a
prominent Dover attorney convicted in a high-profile criminal case
for cruelty to animals after he shot a neighbor's dog on his family
farm in Sussex County.
Elliott received a private admonition, which
cleared the way for him to practice law without interruption as a
name partner at Prickett Jones & Elliott, a firm that has been part
of the legal firmament in Delaware since the late 19th Century.
The sanctioning occurred on Jan. 14, according
to Chief Disciplinary Counsel Mary M. Johnston, whose office handles
misconduct cases against Delaware lawyers. While private admonitions
by definition are kept confidential, Johnston said this one was an
exception under the disciplinary rules because it involved an
allegation of criminal conduct and because it already was public
Johnston disclosed the disposition of
Elliott's case in response to a request Thursday from the Delaware
Victor F. Battaglia Sr., a Wilmington lawyer
who represented Elliott, declined comment, saying he believed he had
an obligation under the disciplinary system to keep the matter
The private admonition appears to be the last
word in a case that has dragged on for more than a year with twists
and turns in timing and in the charges that Elliott faced. At its
worst he seemed subject to criminal charges as serious as a
gun-related felony and to a legal disciplinary system where
penalties range in increasing severity from private admonition,
public reprimand and suspension to disbarment.
Elliott, 60, has practiced law since 1967. He
is a graduate of Harvard College and the University of Virginia law
school and once clerked for the state Supreme Court. The law firm
where he works is a fixture of the Delaware bar with more than 20
attorneys in its Wilmington headquarters as well as offices in Dover
and Kennett Square, Pa.
Elliott's troubles began on Nov. 14, 2001. As
both the prosecution and the defense in his criminal case
acknowledged, Elliott returned to his farm in Delmar from deer
hunting and shot a seven-month-old boxer he said had frightened his
wife. The dog was owned by a neighbor.
Elliott was charged with two felonies, cruelty
to animals and possession of a firearm during the commission of a
felony. Despite the seriousness of the charges, he was allowed to
keep practicing law by the Delaware Supreme Court, which oversees
the disciplinary system.
The case dawdled through a constitutional
challenge and the 2002 election, where the most volatile race was
the one for attorney general. It involved Republican Attorney
General M. Jane Brady, whose office was prosecuting Elliott, and
Democrat Carl Schnee, a Wilmington attorney who was a former law
partner of Elliott's, as well as Green Vivian A. Houghton, a
Wilmington attorney whose campaign was based on attacking special
treatment for the politically connected. Brady won with 48 percent
of the vote.
While Elliott's case could have been as
politically volatile as the campaign itself, it did not come to
trial until the day after the election, when he pleaded to a single
reduced charge -- a misdemeanor for cruelty to animals. The
prosecution and the defense said the matter received routine
handling with no special treatment.
Elliott was sentenced to a $500 fine, a year
of probation, 100 hours of community service at the SPCA, forfeiture
of the weapon and restitution to the dog's owner.
He still faced possible disciplinary
penalties, however. Johnston said she brought the case to a
Preliminary Review Committee, a panel of two lawyers and a layperson
functioning as a sort of grand jury, with a recommendation for
formal proceedings against Elliott. The names of the committee
members are confidential.
The committee offered Elliott the opportunity
to consent to a private admonition, which he accepted, Johnston
said. Under the disciplinary system, that ended the matter with no
provision for her office to pursue it further, she said.
There is precedent for such a conclusion in
disciplinary actions against lawyers convicted of criminal
misdemeanors, Johnston said. She cited situations that led to
private admonitions for a lawyer who was in a fight and a lawyer who
let someone drive with a suspended license.
Elliott's case, like the others, ended
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