Saturday, March 6, 2004

Lawyer now owes truth to the living


Thanks to the Ohio Supreme Court, the five-year mystery of Erica Baker may soon be solved.

Erica was 9 years old when she took her dog for a walk Feb. 7, 1999. She never came home. The dog, a gray and white Shih Tzu named Jaime, was found wandering a few blocks from Erica's home in Kettering a few hours after the girl disappeared.

Family, friends, police and many others spent days searching the Dayton suburb for some sign of the missing girl. The days became weeks, then months, then years. The only "clue" was a persistent police tip that a woman named Jan Franks might have been in a van that struck and killed the little girl. The rumor was that Franks and the other van occupants panicked and disposed of the body.

Franks died from a drug overdose in 2001. Her court-appointed attorney, Beth Lewis, claiming attorney-client privilege, refused to divulge anything that Franks may have told her in connection with the disappearance. A 50-year-old Ohio law says the spouse of a deceased person may waive attorney-client privilege on behalf of a dead client. Franks' estranged husband did that. But Lewis has disputed the husband's authority to waive the privilege and has remained silent, despite a series of contempt findings by lower courts.

The Supreme Court ruled Wednesday that the attorney-client privilege died with Franks and that Lewis must break her silence. Authorities now expect to question Lewis before a grand jury about what Franks may have told her.

This was not a simple case, and we do not believe Lewis has been withholding information about Erica's disappearance out of spite, or because she lacks sympathy for the missing child's family. Attorney-client privilege is an important legal protection, and lawyers are honor-bound to defend it zealously. Clients must be assured that the things they confide to their lawyers will remain confidential if the integrity of our adversarial court system is to be maintained.

But Jan Franks is far beyond the need of her lawyer's protection any longer, and the attorney's duty is to see that the truth of this sad story finally comes out.

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