The Virginia State Bar's Third District Committee has filed a complaint of attorney misconduct against Michael Morchower related to his representation of Janet Pelasara, the mother of Taylor Behl, the Virginia Commonwealth University student who disappeared and was later found murdered last year.
The disappearance of 17-year-old Behl on Sept. 5 sparked a frantic search by police and family that garnered national attention. After investigators found her decomposed body in Mathews County a month later, Pelasara hired Morchower, who represented the family in Richmond "free of charge," the complaint reads.
According to court documents, Pelasara "became uncomfortable with [Morchower's] representation after she saw him on the televised news speaking on her behalf. On October 31, 2005, Ms. Pelasara advised Mr. Morchower that she would no longer need his services."
While representing Pelasara, the complaint charges, Morchower met with the Richmond Commonwealth Attorney's Office, where he learned there might not be enough forensic evidence to convict the man responsible for killing Behl, Richmonder Benjamin Fawley, 38. During interviews with police, Fawley said that Behl accidentally died from strangulation while they were having rough but consensual sex.
"Morchower learned that the prosecution may be forced to accept Mr. Fawley's version of events, because of the lack of forensic evidence," the complaint reads. Morchower shared that information with a reporter from The Washington Times two days after Pelasara dismissed him as her attorney.
In an article that appeared in The Washington Times Nov. 3, Morchower is quoted as saying: "It is probably going to be virtually impossible for the medical examiner to reconstruct how [Behl] died.
The Commonwealth forensically may not be able to contradict [Fawley's] statement."
Pelasara and Morchower did not return calls seeking comment by press time.
The state bar found that Morchower's statements to the media constituted "ethical misconduct" because they violated client-attorney confidentiality and could affect Fawley's ability to receive a fair trial.
Fawley, whose trial starts Aug. 17, faces first-degree-murder charges.
While Morchower has been privately reprimanded by the bar in the past, he has no "public disciplinary" record, according to the state bar.
Morchower, a partner with Morchower, Luxton & Whaley, is scheduled to appear before a three-judge panel Sept. 20 to respond to the charges. The panel could suspend or revoke his license. But local attorney Steven Benjamin says it's unlikely the charges are severe enough to lead to the revocation of his license to practice law.
"It is obvious that the state bar is taking this matter very seriously," Benjamin says. "But this is not the sort of conduct that typically results in the revocation of one's right to practice law." SClick here for more News and Features