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Wednesday, September 29, 2004 - Page updated at 12:00 A.M.

Suspension suggested for former public defender

By Christine Clarridge
Seattle Times staff reporter

Former public defender Theresa Olson used a "hug gone bad" defense.
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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.
 
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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.

Christine Clarridge: 206-464-8983 or cclarridge@seattletimes.com

Copyright © 2004 The Seattle Times Company

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