Va. lawyer suspended after Net sex arrest

Public's confidence in law damaged, judge says

April 20, 2001|By Laura Cadiz | Laura Cadiz,SUN STAFF

A patent lawyer has been indefinitely suspended from practicing law in Maryland by the Court of Appeals after he was arrested and charged with crossing state lines to engage in sexual activity with a minor solicited over the Internet.

In a 4-2 decision, the state's highest court ruled yesterday that the conduct of James F. Childress, of Arlington, Va., undermines the public's confidence in the legal system. He cannot apply to terminate the suspension for one year.

"Imposition of a penalty more significant than a reprimand is needed to deter similar future conduct by [Childress] and to serve notice on the members of the Bar at large that this type of conduct by an officer of this Court will not be tolerated," Judge Lawrence F. Rodowsky wrote in the decision.

From 1993 through 1995, Childress would use the screen name "Fearless" and target underage girls, generally between 13 and 16, in America Online chat rooms, according to the ruling. He persuaded five girls to meet with him after asking whether they wanted to have sex, the ruling also said. But no sexual contact took place, the court records said.

Childress, a member of the bar for more than 10 years, was arrested in 1995 after an FBI agent posed as a 14-year-old girl in a chat room and arranged to meet Childress in Bethesda.

At his criminal trial, Childress had maintained that he would not have had sexual contact with the girls but acknowledged that he would fantasize about minor females, according to the ruling.

Childress was found guilty in the U.S. District Court for the District of Maryland, Southern Division, of proscribing interstate travel with intent to engage in a sexual act with a minor. The U.S. Court of Appeals for the 4th Circuit reversed the conviction on a technicality.

However, in August, the state high court determined that a lawyer can be sanctioned for conduct that is not related to practicing law and that a criminal conviction is not necessary for such disciplinary proceedings.

"For disciplinary purposes, we had enough evidence that he did acts that violated the criminal statutes," Dolores O. Ridgell, assistant bar counsel, said before the Court of Appeals.

Joseph Petrosinelli, Childress' attorney, did not return phone calls seeking comment.

Judge Dale R. Cathell, joined by Judge Irma S. Raker, wrote in the dissenting opinion that he disagreed with the sanction imposed. "Steal money, you are disbarred. Steal a quarter's worth of parking time and you are disbarred. Forever steal a child's innocence and you're suspended. In my view, the Court has a serious problem with its priorities," he wrote.

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