Recent trials, deputy DA’s departure amplify questions in legal community about decision-making, relationships in DA’s office

photo by: Douglas County DA's Facebook page

Douglas County Deputy District Attorney Joshua Seiden and District Attorney Suzanne Valdez are pictured together in downtown Lawrence in a Facebook post Valdez's office published about an evening together in May 2023.

Story updated at 6:48 p.m. Monday, June 24:

Douglas County District Attorney Suzanne Valdez’s right-hand man, Deputy District Attorney Joshua Seiden, is no longer employed by her office, and the local sheriff confirmed his deputies saw Seiden on Friday seemingly impersonating a controversial public commenter.

The abrupt departure took many in the legal community by surprise, given the significant role Seiden had played in Valdez’s administration and his role as her campaign treasurer. Multiple sources told the Journal-World on Monday that Seiden, who had been Valdez’s deputy since 2021 when she took office, abruptly left. The district attorney’s office later on Monday confirmed that Seiden no longer was employed by the office.

The reasons for the departure were not clear, and when the Journal-World caught up with Seiden Monday afternoon as he was jogging, he declined to say anything more about his departure than what the DA’s spokeswoman had said earlier in the day, which was this: “We never do formal announcements about staff leaving. Joshua Seiden has been an integral part of our office since District Attorney Valdez took office, and his contributions have been significant. We wish him the very best as he seeks new opportunities.”

Throughout Valdez’s campaign and tenure in office, Seiden could be regularly seen on social media aggressively defending the office against online criticism. When asked Monday if that had played a role in his departure, he declined to respond.

However, the Journal-World learned that sheriff’s deputies reported seeing Seiden Friday morning at the Judicial and Law Enforcement Center imitating local public commenter Justin Spiehs, who has had multiple run-ins with law enforcement and has been ejected from multiple public meetings due to often profane rhetoric.

According to the sheriff’s office, a deputy photographed Seiden in the act “so the deputy could notify his supervisors about what was happening.” Sheriff Jay Armbrister then took “immediate steps to contact the District Attorney to make sure she was aware of the situation. As an elected official, the District Attorney’s personnel decisions about her agency rest solely with her,” Armbrister’s office said in an email statement.

The Journal-World was unable on Monday afternoon to discover more about that incident and what, if any, role it played in Seiden’s departure.

photo by: Chris Conde/Journal-World

Deputy District Attorney Joshua Seiden talks to District Attorney Suzanne Valdez. Attorney Dakota Loomis in the background on June 11, 2024, with his client accused rapist George Burgess, in Douglas County District Court.

Seiden’s departure comes about a week and a half after a Douglas County jury acquitted star Illinois basketball player Terrence Shannon of rape and amid much public criticism — especially from the local legal community — about how the district attorney’s office handled that case, which received national media attention due to the defendant’s status as a likely top pick in the upcoming NBA draft.

In about an hour and a half, the jury in the trial returned a not guilty verdict. A last-minute change in prosecutors in the case has drawn much attention to the strategy of the district attorney’s office in the high-profile rape trial.

Seiden was representing the state in the Shannon case until a scheduling conflict arose, during which he opted to remain at the side of Valdez in a different rape case instead of trying the Shannon case.

photo by: Screenshot of court filing

The part of a motion in which Deputy District Attorney Joshua Seiden tells Judge Amy Hanley that he is “the only counsel in the District Attorney’s Office who is prepared and qualified to represent the State” in the Terrence Shannon rape trial.

Seiden first tried to get a continuance in the Shannon case so he could try both cases. In attempting to get the case delayed, he claimed to Judge Amy Hanley multiple times that he was the only attorney in the DA’s office qualified to prosecute the case. He went so far as to say that it was “inconceivable” that another prosecutor besides him could be prepared to handle the trial in time. And yet, when the trial began just days later, Seiden did not appear.

The reason? Seiden chose instead to remain by the side of Valdez, with whom he was co-counsel in a different rape trial, that of George Burgess, who was accused of repeatedly abusing a child. The Burgess trial was nearly finished.

When Judge Amy Hanley suggested that Valdez, being the district attorney, could finish up the remaining tasks in the Burgess case on her own, freeing up Seiden for the Shannon trial in her courtroom, Seiden said the two had a “division of labor” that they needed to see through. Hanley pointed out that Valdez would have the better part of a week to prepare to be solo in the trial, which was delayed because of Burgess being ill. That delay is what caused the two trials, in which Seiden was representing the state, to unexpectedly overlap.

While the two senior attorneys, Seiden and Valdez, worked hand in hand to wrap up the rape trial of Burgess, they sent two assistant DAs to prosecute the higher-profile case of Shannon, despite Seiden’s earlier claims that they could not conceivably be prepared.

photo by: Chris Conde/Journal-World File Photo

Senior Assistant District Attorney Ricardo Leal, left, and Assistant District Attorney Samantha Foster are pictured in these Journal-World file photos.

The two junior attorneys sent to prosecute Shannon — Ricardo Leal and Samantha Foster — promptly lost at trial after a jury took only an hour and a half to decide that Shannon was not guilty of rape or even of sexual battery. Shannon’s attorneys, with the national spotlight on Lawrence, stood outside the courthouse and blasted the DA’s office for charging the case in the first place based on what they described as unusually flimsy evidence.

“Those pursuing this case need to be called out,” attorney Mark Sutter said, echoing the sentiment of some locally who felt the case was not only improperly charged but had also been handed at the “11th hour” to underprepared prosecutors. Sutter made a point of complimenting the “professionalism” of Leal and Foster in the matter.

A different attorney said the case was so weak that no prosecutor and no amount of additional time could have changed the outcome. “Where are the checks and balances in the DA’s office?” the attorney asked.

Exactly who is playing what role in the district attorney’s office has been a question in the local legal community. Seiden’s departure comes at a time when the Journal-World was working on an article about Seiden’s role in the office and various office dynamics related to Seiden and Valdez.

The Journal-World talked to more than a dozen members of the legal community who have either worked in the district attorney’s office or continue to have a working relationship with the office. The Journal-World did not interview any of the three candidates who are seeking Valdez’s seat as district attorney, nor did it interview any surrogates of those campaigns.

Members of the local legal community spoke at length about what they’ve seen in regards to the district attorney’s office under Valdez, however, most spoke only on the condition of anonymity. Some sought anonymity because their current employer would not authorize them to speak on the matter. Others sought anonymity because they have cases pending in Valdez’s office, while others said they feared professional repercussions from the DA’s office if their identities were revealed.

Multiple sources described Seiden as Valdez’s “point man” and the de facto DA, though he was never elected to the position.

“Josh has been running the whole show the whole time,” one attorney said. “He fights all her battles. You have to go through him for everything.”

Another attorney told the Journal-World that even decisions in misdemeanor cases are not trusted to “line attorneys” but “have to go through Seiden.”

A person formerly employed by Valdez in the DA’s office described Valdez as “completely in over her head” and said that Seiden “is essentially the district attorney, or at least that was my experience while I was there. He was making all the decisions.”

Another prosecutor who no longer works in Valdez’s office told the Journal-World that Valdez “always has Josh, which is very much how the entire office is run. Suzanne does nothing on her own. It is always Josh. Josh is the one making decisions. And then Suzanne is the mouthpiece. … And it is not just that way with cases; it is every single thing about the office and that administration. Josh micromanages and has his hand in absolutely everything.”

The Journal-World asked Valdez’s office several specific questions about office roles, dynamics and relationships. Cheryl Cadue, the spokesperson for the office, did not respond to any of the questions specifically, but issued a general statement via email denouncing the Journal-World for asking about the issues.

“It is dangerous and even slanderous to throw these types of allegations around,” Cadue said via email. “This represents a new low of depravity, even for the Lawrence Journal-World.”

The statements by Seiden about his unique ability to try the case — followed by his not showing up to do it — have amplified questions about whether the DA’s office has enough qualified attorneys, even more so now that he himself has left Valdez’s employ. A review of employment records from the office indicates that more than 20 attorneys have left Valdez’s office in her three-plus years, often to be replaced by attorneys with comparatively little experience.

At a recent candidate forum, Valdez touted her office as being a pleasant place to work and having an “egalitarian culture,” a claim that has been disputed, notably by former employees, like longtime prosecutor Eve Kemple, Alice Walker and others who publicly testified against Valdez at her disciplinary hearing in December, as the Journal-World reported. The former prosecutors painted a picture of an office in disarray and relationships with law enforcement and the court strained. They were critical of Valdez’s treatment of other professionals, including judges.

At the hearing, charges of unprofessional conduct were leveled against Valdez, as well as claims that the atmosphere in her office was so “negative” and stressful that “After several months, only one attorney remained” with the DA’s office from prior to her being sworn in. After the disciplinary hearing, at which six district judges testified against Valdez, a panel recommended that Valdez be censured, although the special prosecutor had recommended that she be stripped of her law license for a year. The case is currently pending before the Kansas Supreme Court.

photo by: Chris Conde/Journal-World

Douglas County District Attorney Suzanne Valdez, left, Deputy District Attorney Joshua Seiden, and attorney Steven Angermayer are pictured Tuesday, Dec. 19, 2023, outside the hearing room at the Kansas Judicial Center in Topeka, where Valdez was attending her disciplinary hearing. No cameras were allowed inside the hearing room.

While Cadue did not answer specific questions about the dynamics of the office, she did provide explanations related to the most recent controversy in the office — the decision for Seiden to not try the Shannon case.

When questioned about the decision for Seiden to hand the case off to more junior attorneys, the DA’s office appeared to backtrack from Seiden’s claim that he was uniquely qualified.

Seiden’s original claim, averred at least twice to Judge Hanley, was that “undersigned counsel (Seiden) is the only counsel in the District Attorney’s Office who is prepared and qualified to represent the State.”

However, after the trial, the DA’s office said that had not been the case, exactly.

“Ultimately, schedules were rearranged and other qualified counsel within the office expended extraordinary effort to prepare for the Shannon trial,” Cadue told the Journal-World in an email.

Cadue further said in an email to the Journal-World that “the District Attorney could certainly have completed the Burgess trial on her own,” that it was “most of the way through,” but she said Seiden’s presence was necessary because the jury would not have understood his absence.

“[T]here would have been no way to explain Mr. Seiden’s absence to the jury in the Burgess case,” she wrote.

Seiden had made the same argument to Judge Hanley, who was presiding in the Shannon case, claiming that the jury could be prejudiced against the state in the Burgess trial if Seiden were to be absent — a claim Hanley rejected.

The Journal-World spoke with multiple attorneys who indicated that judges routinely instruct jurors regarding what they could consider, and they seemed surprised by the notion that jurors might read something negative into being told that an attorney was obliged to miss a day of the trial due to an unavoidable scheduling issue.

There were multiple signs that the two attorneys assigned to the Shannon case felt pressured by the lack of time they had to prepare for the high-profile trial. After the Shannon verdict was read and the TV camera was gone, Leal could be heard in the courtroom commenting on how little time he had to prepare.

He declined to give a formal comment when asked what went into the process of being assigned the case and what help he received from Seiden or Valdez throughout the trial. He then said, “Eight days; I have been on this case for eight days,” as he gathered his things. The verdict was rendered on June 13, meaning Leal got the case on June 5, five days before jury selection began, and on the very day that Seiden had assured the court that “it would be unreasonable to expect to prepare a case of this magnitude in less than one week.”

Both Leal and his co-counsel, Foster, have been targeted for online abuse for trying the case, including accusations of racism. The Journal-World reached out to both for comment, but they said they were not allowed to comment to the media, and referred questions to Cadue.

Valdez and Seiden went on to win the sex abuse case that Seiden stayed behind to assist Valdez with. Valdez in a press release announcing the results of that case then took the rare step, in her case, of naming her defeated opponent in the case: attorney Dakota Loomis, who is one of two candidates running against her in the upcoming Democratic primary election.

David Greenwald, a longtime prosecutor in the district attorney’s office, will be stepping into the deputy role vacated by Seiden, although Greenwald is running for the Johnson County district attorney seat as a Republican, so it’s unclear how long his commitment to the Douglas County office would be.

Valdez faces two competitors in the upcoming Democratic primary, attorneys Tonda Hill and Loomis, on Aug. 6.

— Public safety reporter Chris Conde contributed to this story.

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