injusticebusters logo

Theresa Olson

State Supreme Court suspends Olson for two years

The disbarment of Theresa Olson brought an unprecedented number of visitors to this page. About 10% went on to read more about the Rafay/Burns case. I hope that those who are interested in Theresa Olson are aware of the dirty tricks in this case. Canadian cops use tactics that would automatically disqualify the "confessions" gained if they had been operating in the U.S. Al Haslett and Gary Shinkaruk went to visit the jail cells of Sebastian and Atif while they were in court. They seem to have developed a very chummy relationship with the guards and others in the U.S. justice system. Some of their behavior, notably lying through their teeth, could well have rubbed off, if you'll pardon the phrase, on the guards who testified to seeing Olson and her client. Maybe they saw this in their sick dreams.  -- Sheila Steele

Theresa Olson

SEATTLE -- The state Supreme Court has suspended Theresa Olson, a lawyer caught having jailhouse sexual relations with a triple-murder defendant she was representing, for two years.

The suspension, announced Thursday, takes effect Friday and follows the revised recommendation of the state Bar Association's disciplinary board. In 2003, the Supreme Court rejected the bar's recommendation for a one-year suspension.

In addition, Olson must undergo a psychological evaluation before she can be reinstated.

Justices Richard Sanders and Jim Johnson both dissented, arguing that the suspension was too harsh in part because there was "no evidence" sexual relations had occurred - even though on Aug. 10, 2002, guards outside a King County Jail conference room saw her client, Sebastian Burns, standing behind her with his pants down and his penis erect. Her long dress was pulled up around her waist, the guards testified.

The state's Rules of Professional Conduct for lawyers prohibit "sexual relations" between clients and their counsel, unless there was a pre-existing sexual relationship. Sanders argued that the term "sexual relations" refers only to male-female vaginal intercourse and cited a dictionary definition of "coitus."

Sanders' dissent was reminiscent of the definition former President Bill Clinton relied on when he famously denied having "sexual relations" with Monica Lewinsky.

"I often disagreed with President Clinton, but I thought he was technically correct," Sanders told The Associated Press on Thursday.

"You have to write it down in plain English about what's prohibited. If it's not prohibited, it's not prohibited."

Sanders and Johnson argued that some lesser discipline was appropriate under another rule, one that bars actions that are prejudicial to the administration of justice - which her misuse of the jail conference room was. They also argued that there was no reason to force Olson to undergo a psychological evaluation before being reinstated, as there was no evidence her mental capacity was in question.

At the time of the encounter, Olson was 43 and married; Burns was 26. Olson was removed from the case, and Burns was given new counsel. He was convicted last year, along with his friend, Atif Rafay, of beating Rafay's sister and parents to death at their Bellevue home in 1994.

Olson's lawyer, David Allen, did not immediately return a call seeking comment after business hours Thursday.

The state's code of ethics for lawyers has long barred such relationships implicitly, but it wasn't until three years ago that it was amended to expressly forbid them. Legal experts say there are numerous reasons for banning such affairs, such as the possibility that emotional attachment might cloud judgment when it comes to legal strategy and that the client's defense could be jeopardized if the relationship turns sour.

Olson had no record of prior discipline since being admitted to the bar in 1986. She worked for 15 years with The Defender Association, which provides legal help to those who can't afford their own lawyers.

Burns had been her sole client for nearly three years.


Lawyer Punished For Jail-Sex Romp

The state Supreme Court on Thursday announced a two-year suspension for a lawyer caught having jailhouse sex with a triple-murder defendant she was representing.

Theresa Olson's suspension begins Friday; she must undergo a psychological evaluation before she can be reinstated.

Earlier, Olson and the state Bar Association had agreed to a one-year suspension, but the high court rejected the bar's recommendation.

In 2002, guards outside a King County Jail conference room saw Olson with her dress pulled up and her client, Sebastian Burns, standing behind her with his pants down.

At the time of the encounter, Olson was 43 and married; Burns was 26.

Olson was removed from the case, and Burns was given new counsel. He was convicted last year, along with a friend, of beating the friend's sister and parents to death at their Bellevue home in 1994.

Olson's lawyer, David Allen, did not immediately return a call seeking comment after business hours Thursday.


Suspension suggested for former public defender

A disciplinary hearing examiner ruled yesterday that the law license of a former public defender accused of having jailhouse sex with one of her clients should be suspended for two years.

In his ruling, hearing examiner David Thorner found that Theresa Olson had, in fact, engaged in sexual relations with her former client, convicted triple murderer Glen Sebastian Burns, despite her protestations to the contrary.

During the Aug. 10, 2002, meeting between Olson, 45, and Burns, 29, Olson "knowingly and intentionally engaged in inappropriate, intimate physical contact, including sexual relations, with her client, Mr. Burns," Thorner wrote in his ruling.

The ruling, which will be sent to the Washington State Bar Association's Disciplinary Board for review and then on to the state Supreme Court for final approval, may be appealed by either Olson or the bar association.

During the four-day disciplinary hearing earlier this month, the bar association charged Olson with violating a legal ethics rule that bars lawyers from having sexual relations with clients and claimed that Olson's behavior had given the legal community a "well-publicized black eye."

In his ruling, Thorner determined that Burns suffered harm as a result of Olson's inappropriate sexual, physical and personal relationship with him. He also found that additional public money had to be used to hire new counsel and that the legal profession had been embarrassed by the headline-making scandal.

Thorner also recommended a mental-health evaluation for Olson.

Olson's attorney, David Allen, said that some good came of the ruling.

He noted that the hearing examiner had not specifically found that Olson had had "sexual intercourse" but merely "sexual relations" with Burns and that Olson's character and reputation as an attorney were good.

"We're just glad that this matter is finally going to be resolved." Allen said.

Olson and the bar association had tried to settle the disciplinary case last year by suspending Olson's law license for a year in exchange for her admission of inappropriate "sexual contact" with Burns, but the state Supreme Court rejected that proposed penalty without comment.

Olson, who was known as a committed and zealous public defender, had said during the hearing that jail guards were mistaken when they claimed she was caught having sex with Burns.

"It was a hug gone bad," her attorney said. "She regrets it."

Olson admitted she had developed romantic feelings for Burns during the preparation of his lengthy and complicated defense, but she said those feelings had been discussed and dismissed.

She testified that Burns had come up behind her as she was preparing to leave and given her a hug. Her mistake, she said, was in not resisting the hug.

"It was stupid and improper, and a horrible mistake," she said tearfully.

But her testimony contradicted that of four jail guards who said they watched the pair having sex for several minutes before entering the room where attorneys can meet with their clients.

Correction officers Leander Glenn and Dexter Pasco said they saw Olson bent over a table with one arm propped against the wall and Burns was standing behind her with his hands on her hips.

Following the allegations, Olson was removed from the case, and the county filed a breach-of-contract lawsuit against her and her then-employer, The Defender Association, seeking repayment for the costs of finding a new lawyer for Burns and subsequent delays in his trial.

That lawsuit is pending.

Burns and co-defendant Atif Rafay were each convicted of three counts of aggravated first-degree murder for the beating deaths of Rafay's family members in Bellevue more than 10 years ago and are awaiting sentencing.

Olson worked for a time in a friend's law firm and has now gone back to school where she is studying fashion design.


Two guards testify they saw Olson, client having sex

Despite former public defender Theresa Olson's explanation that it was only a "hug gone bad," two King County Jail guards testified yesterday that they saw her doing much more than that with her client, a man facing triple murder charges, in a jail meeting room two years ago.

"I thought I saw two individuals having sex," said King County corrections officer Leander Glenn.

The guards' testimony came during the first day of a Washington State Bar Association disciplinary hearing that will help decide Olson's professional fate in a scandal that has endured in Seattle's legal and law-enforcement communities.

Olson is accused of having sex with client Sebastian Burns, later found guilty with friend Atif Rafay of killing Rafay's father, mother and sister in their Bellevue home.

The state bar claims Olson broke a legal-ethics rule adopted in 2000 that prohibits lawyers from having sexual relations with clients. It is recommending that Olson be suspended for one year. The final decision on the proposed sanctions rests with the state Supreme Court.

The hearing, expected to continue through Thursday, is held before a bar hearing examiner who will determine the facts of the case and whether any rules or laws were broken, and then recommend sanctions that could range from a reprimand to suspension or disbarment.

Olson, who had been widely described as a brilliant, committed and headstrong public defender, has admitted that she had inappropriate contact, but she denies that it was sexual contact.

"It was a hug gone bad," said her attorney, David Allen. "She regrets it."

Olson also argues that a reprimand is sufficient because it was "clearly a one-time thing," Allen said, and because the punishment should be comparable to that received by other lawyers who have been disciplined for sexual relations with clients.

Olson is expected to testify later in the week.

The hearing is being held in a large conference room at the bar offices in downtown Seattle.

Backed by family members and friends, Olson remained stoic through most of the testimony yesterday, which largely focused on determining whether sexual contact had occurred.

The testimony was sometimes so sexually explicit that many in the audience appeared uncomfortable. At one point, for example, corrections officer Glenn was asked to pose in the position that he alleges he caught Olson in.

But Olson's most overt reaction yesterday came when one of the deputy prosecutors on the murder case, James Konat, testified that he was "flabbergasted" by the allegations because he regarded Burns as a "creepy, scary and violent killer."

Olson shook her head.

James Konat

At the time of the incident, in August 2002, Burns and Rafay were facing trial in the 1994 slayings. The pair were convicted of aggravated first-degree murders and are awaiting sentencing.

At the hearing yesterday, Glenn and fellow corrections officer Dexter Pasco testified that they saw Olson leaning over a table with her back to Burns. Burns' pants were down and he was exposed, Glenn testified. Burns was moving as if having sex, Glenn said.

Allen yesterday responded that the guards didn't see what really happened. He said Burns had hugged Olson from behind, and because Olson's back was to Burns she had "absolutely no idea" that his pants were down.

Allen also said that Olson had developed romantic feelings for Burns during hundreds of hours of trial preparation, but the feelings were put aside after the two discussed them and realized a relationship wasn't possible.

After the incident, Olson resigned from The Defender Association. King County has sued Olson and the firm for costs lost to the delay in hiring new lawyers. Today, a county public-defense official is expected to testify about the exact costs.

Olson and the state bar had agreed last year to settle the disciplinary case by suspending Olson's law license for a year.

In that proposed settlement, Olson admitted in documents that she'd had "sexual contact" with Burns, but she denied that sexual intercourse had occurred.

The state Supreme Court rejected the one-year penalty, and a state bar review board ordered the public hearing.


Sex contact with client could cost lawyer

A Seattle lawyer who was caught in a sexual encounter with her client in the King County Jail last year has agreed to a one-year suspension of her license to practice law.

The client is accused of killing three members of a Bellevue family.

Yesterday, the Washington State Bar Association recommended the one-year suspension for lawyer Theresa Olson to the Washington State Supreme Court, where justices could make a final ruling in a few weeks.

The settlement also includes a year of probation and a psychological evaluation for Olson, who would be required to get any recommended counseling or treatment. Before being reinstated, she must be found "fit to practice law."

Olson's attorney, David Allen, said the agreed punishment was "a reasonable outcome, given a very unfortunate and difficult situation." He said Olson, 44, hopes to serve her suspension and put the matter behind her, returning to the courtroom.

She acknowledges that she had sexual contact with accused killer Sebastian Burns in a jail meeting room last August, but she denies jail officers' allegations that it was sexual intercourse, according to Allen.

Officers reported seeing Burns and Olson through the narrow window of a room where attorneys are allowed to meet alone with their clients.

The incident only added to the intense media spotlight that has followed Burns and his co-defendant, Atif Rafay, ever since Rafay's family was found bludgeoned in their Bellevue home seven years ago.

Olson, who was taken off the case and has since resigned as a public defender, quietly agreed to the one-year suspension in May. The compromise skirted the need for taking testimony at a formal disciplinary hearing.

She agreed she "acted with knowledge of a conflict of interest" -- or at least a potential conflict -- that wasn't fully disclosed to Burns and that it harmed Burns, according to the bar.

The bar's disciplinary board voted 9-1 to approve the settlement on Friday. The Supreme Court can now approve the board's recommendation or send it back for further consideration, said bar spokeswoman Judy Berrett.

A few years ago, the bar recommended a six-month suspension for attorney Lowell Halverson for having sexual relationships with clients, and the court doubled it to a year. Unlike Olson, however, he had contested the discipline and did not reach a settlement with the bar.

Olson worked at The Defender Association for about 16 years. She represented a police sergeant charged with murder, a man who killed his wife and two sons, and a woman convicted of setting her husband on fire.

"Theresa's a very strong lawyer, and we appreciate the many years of dedicated representation which she provided for our clients and our office," Bob Boruchowitz, director of The Defender Association, said yesterday.

Since quitting as a public defender, Olson has worked for other law firms on mostly civil cases.

The encounter between Burns and Olson also left Burns facing discipline: 10 days of "disciplinary deadlock," meaning he was confined to his cell 23 hours a day, losing privileges from recreation to watching television.

He is no longer allowed to meet one-on-one with anyone.

His new attorneys are now preparing for a trial this fall and emphasize that the jail encounter has nothing to do with their case.

Rafay and Burns will return to court this morning, where Superior Court Judge Charles Mertel will continue hearing testimony about an undercover police operation used to elicit alleged confessions from the pair in Canada.

Defense attorneys argue that evidence obtained by Canadian officers shouldn't be allowed in court because their tactics -- including electronically monitoring the young men's private conversations for months -- are questionable here.

King County prosecutors argue that the evidence is fair game because the measures are perfectly legal in Canada.

The matter may come down to whether Canadian detectives conducted their secret investigation on their own, or at the behest of Bellevue police. Mertel is expected to rule Aug. 28.

Meanwhile, King County's lawsuit against Olson and her former agency -- an effort to recoup roughly $800,000 for Burns' defense -- is on hold until the murder trial is over.

Burns' new lawyers said the work that Olson and former public defender Neil Fox put into the case has been invaluable. One of the new lawyers, Jeff Robinson, said yesterday that he is pleased Olson has reached an agreement with the bar.

"As a colleague and a friend, I'm really happy that she'll practice law in this state, because I think there are clients who will benefit from her legal skills," Robinson said. "I'm glad for her that it's over."