SalemNews.com, Salem, MA

June 26, 2013

Cocaine conviction leads to attorney's suspension

BY JULIE MANGANIS
STAFF WRITER

---- — SALEM — A Salem attorney and former City Council candidate has been suspended from practicing law for three years, following his conviction on drug charges last summer.

James R. Willis Jr., 38, pleaded guilty to cocaine possession with intent to distribute last August, nearly two years after Salem police found 8 to 10 grams of the drug, along with scales and an unspecified amount of cash, in his Pingree Street apartment in 2010.

Police at the time described Willis as “cooperative,” pointing them to a dresser drawer where they found the drugs. They also said at the time that Willis had made statements admitting that he had sold the drug to others.

Last week, Willis received the three-year suspension from practicing law by the Supreme Judicial Court, as a result of that conviction. The suspension is retroactive to March 21, when a temporary suspension was first imposed.

The conviction on a felony charge triggered disciplinary proceedings before the Board of Bar Overseers, on the grounds that Willis violated a rule against attorneys engaging in any conduct that reflects adversely on his fitness to practice law or any criminal acts that reflect adversely on the attorney’s honesty, trustworthiness or fitness to practice.

Willis did not dispute the rule violations and reached an agreement for the three-year suspension in May, according to the case docket and the summary of the case provided by the board. The board also concluded that the charges were not related to his practice of law.

That came, however, after several months in which he sought a stay of the disciplinary proceedings, citing the possible involvement of state drug lab chemist Annie Dookhan in analyzing the drugs seized from his apartment in 2010.

Dookhan is currently under indictment in several counties for allegedly falsifying test results and lying about her educational qualifications. Those charges have called thousands of drug cases into question.

Willis had filed letters with the Office of Bar Counsel, indicating that he was planning to file a motion to withdraw his guilty plea in the case. That withdrawal, if allowed, would have vacated the conviction and put the case back in court for trial.

The disciplinary proceedings were reopened in February after Willis withdrew his motion for a new trial on Feb. 13.

Willis has been practicing law since 2006, according to information from the Board of Bar Overseers.

Willis was a member of the Salem Council on Aging’s board of directors from 2005 to 2010 and has remained active in the debate over a senior center in Salem. He also tried twice to win election to an at-large City Council seat, in 2005 and 2007.

Courts reporter Julie Manganis can be reached at 978-338-2521, via email at jmanganis@salemnews.com or on Twitter @SNJulieManganis.