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Confidentiality of Client: The Buried Bodies Case

Four college-age friends set out on a camping trip to New York’s Adirondack Mountains in the summer of 1973. What happened over the next few hours led to a case that generated a national debate between an attorney and a client about confidentiality. It is an essential part of the law school curriculum that addresses legal ethics and professional responsibility, commonly referred to as the “Buried Bodies Case”.

In July 1973, Robert Francis Garrow attacked four campers, stabbing Philip Domblewski to death, while the other three escaped and called for assistance. Garrow was captured following a massive 12-day manhunt. Immediately following his arrest, Garrow requested that Frank Armani, a lawyer in general practice in Syracuse, New York, who had represented Garrow in minor matters before him, be represented on the pending charge of murder. As Garrow’s appointed counsel, the court named Armani and Francis Belge, another local lawyer.

Garrow admitted to his attorneys during the pre-trial preparation that he had murdered Domblewski. He also admitted other crimes, including the abduction, raping and murder of two women in separate incidents: Alicia Hauck, 16, and Susan Petz, 20, respectively. The locations where he dumped their bodies were described by Garrow. His description was so specific that Belge could locate both women’s remains and photograph the sites.

Nobody told Armani and Belge about Garrow’s confession. The female victims were deemed missing persons and Garrow was suspected by the police of killing them. At his office, Petz’s distraught father confronted Armani, asking if Armani had any information about his daughter. Armani rejected several attempts by Hauck’s father to meet with him as a result of this incident.

The lawyers of Garrow faced the dilemma of upholding their ethical duty to preserve information that their client had told them. They had information that would allow the slain girls’ families to know for sure the fate of their daughters and to bury the bodies properly. Armani also came to the painful realization that he was familiar with the father of one of the victims and that she was Armani’s daughter’s classmate.

The lawyers kept their secret, and many months later, Garrow’s case proceeded to trial. Garrow confessed to the murder of Domblewski, as well as the murders of the two missing women, under direct questioning. He also confessed throughout upstate New York to multiple rapes and abductions. Armani and Belge publicly acknowledged the day after Garrow’s testimony that they had known all along about the murders and the locations of the two women’s bodies.

The lawyers, including vandalism and death threats, became the target of widespread public outrage and were forced to relocate their families to protect their safety. The lawyers insisted that they were bound by their obligation of confidentiality to protect the information disclosed by their client. The legal community was largely supportive of Armani and Belge, but in a post-Watergate world, the general public widely distrusted lawyers and did not see things the same way. Both men lost friendships of long standing and saw their law practices wither and fail. A grand jury investigated them both and Belge was ultimately indicted, as he was alone when he discovered one of the bodies. To better photograph them, Belge admitted to moving the remains and was accused of failing to report a dead body and failing to provide a decent burial for it. A trial court judge later dismissed those charges, praising Belge for his commitment to his ethical duty as a lawyer. People v. Belge, 372 N.Y.S.2d 798 N.Y.S.2d 7988 (1975).

The family of one of the victims filed an ethics complaint with the state bar against the lawyers. Four years later, the New York State Bar Association’s Committee on Professional Ethics dismissed the complaint, stating in its opinion that a client must have confidentiality assurance, “a requirement embodied by law in the privilege of the attorney-client,” to encourage full disclosure of all potentially relevant facts to his lawyer.

Years later, Armani described the ethical conflict as “the duty to keep the secrets of a client versus the duty of the citizen to report crimes.” There was also a moral duty at play to alleviate the suffering of grieving parents, one that was especially important to Armani himself as a parent.

“Armani never questioned the duty imposed by the oath of the office he held to “keep the secrets of our customers inviolate.” He thought the dilemma was “a matter of which at the moment the higher moral good is… the issue of the Constitution, the question of even a [expletive] like [Garrow] having a proper defense, having adequate representation, being able to trust his lawyer as to what he was.

Forty-five years later, this case is still relevant to the debate about the duty of confidentiality of a lawyer to customers. That obligation is specified in Rule 1.6 of the Model Rules of Professional Conduct of the ABA. The case is considered to have contributed to the inclusion of “death and substantial bodily injury” as an exception to the confidentiality obligation under Rule 1.6. Id., the 22nd p.

His lawyers were governed by the New York version of the ABA Model Code of Professional Responsibility at the time of Garrow’s trial, which enabled a lawyer to disclose “his client’s intention to commit a crime and the information necessary to prevent the crime,” but not prior acts admitted in confidence. Decades later, Armani revealed that he was not aware in 1973 that there was even a written ethics code for New York lawyers in a panel discussion at an ABA Conference on Professional Responsibility. His guide was the oath he took in 1956 when, as a lawyer, he was sworn in to maintain the trust of the secrets of his client. Lisa G. Lerman, et al., The Buried Bodies Case: After Thirty Years Alive and Well, 2007 Prof. Law. Nineteen, 29-31 (2007).