In this case, a Nashville, TN attorney who posted comments on Facebook with instructions on how to shoot someone and avoid criminal conviction by making it look like self-defense was suspended from the practice of law for four years. In Re Winston Bradshaw Sitton, BPR #018440

Mr. Sitton, the attorney in this case, maintained a Facebook page. His Facebook profile identified him as a lawyer.

For roughly a year, Mr. Sitton was a “Facebook friend” of a woman named Lauren Houston but had not met her in person. Ms. Houston was in the midst of a tumultuous break-up with Jason Henderson, the father of her child. Through his Facebook connection with Ms. Houston, Mr. Sitton became aware of allegations of abuse, harassment, violations of child custody arrangement, and requests for orders of protection.

Ms. Houston wrote the following post on her Facebook page: “I need to always carry my gun with me now, don’t I? Is it legal to carry in TN in your car without paying the damn state?” The post was not directed to anyone specifically but rather was aimed at Ms. Houston’s Facebook audience.

In response to her post, Mr. Sitton posted comments on the escalating use of force. He then posted that, if the Facebook friend wanted “to kill” her ex-boyfriend, she should “lure” him into her home, “claim” he broke in with intent to do her harm, and “claim” she feared for her life. The attorney emphasized in his post that his advice was given “as a lawyer,” and if she was “remotely serious,” she should “keep mum” and delete the entire comment thread because premeditation could be used against her “at trial.

Although Ms. Houston deleted her Facebook post, Mr. Henderson soon became aware of the Facebook exchange between Ms. Houston and Mr. Sitton. He brought screenshots of Ms. Houston’s public Facebook post and the comments, including those by Mr. Sitton, to the attention of Shelby County District Attorney General Amy Weirich. The Attorney General in turn passed the screenshots along to Tennessee’s Board of Professional Responsibility (“Board”).

The Board investigated the matter and filed a petition for discipline against Mr.Sitton. The petition alleged Mr. Sitton violated the attorney ethics rules by “counsel[ing] Ms. Houston about how to engage in criminal conduct in a manner that would minimize the likelihood of arrest or conviction.”

Mr. Sitton admitted most of the basic facts alleged by the Board in its petition. He contended, however, that his Facebook comments were taken out of context. Mr. Sitton argued his comments could not be considered as counseling Ms. Houston on how to get away with criminal conduct and denied he had violated the ethics rules.

At the hearing, Mr. Sitton maintained that his Facebook posts about luring Mr. Henderson into Ms. Houston’s home to kill him were “sarcasm” or “dark humor.” The hearing panel observed that Mr. Sitton felt a personal connection with Ms. Houston and empathized with her situation. It believed he “wanted to help her.”

However, the Board found that Mr. Sitton violated the attorney ethics rules and, as a result, imposed a sixty-day suspension of Mr. Sitton’s license to practice law.

The Tennessee Supreme Court reviewed and rejected the Board’s order. After taking the matter under advisement, the Supreme Court held that the sanction must be increased. The Supreme Court held that the attorney’s advice, in and of itself, was clearly prejudicial to the administration of justice and violated the ethics rules. In addition, his choice to post the remarks on a public platform amplified their deleterious effect. The social media posts fostered a public perception that a lawyer’s role is to manufacture false defenses. They projected a public image of corruption of the judicial process. Under these circumstances, the act of posting the comments on social media should be deemed an aggravating factor that justifies an increase in discipline. Accordingly, the Supreme Court modified the hearing panel’s judgment to impose a four-year suspension from the practice of law.

The case is attached here –

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