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DAVID GREEN HOST: It's a plot that seems worthy of a TV drama. An accused drug dealer has turned the tables and helped convict his own defense lawyer. The lawyer and two private investigators here in Washington, D.C. were charged with manufacturing evidence to help the alleged drug dealer's case. The bizarre episode is shining a light on the ethical pitfalls for criminal defense attorneys. NPR's Carrie Johnson has the story.

CARRIE JOHNSON, BYLINE: For more than 30 years, Charles Daum made a living defending people accused of run-of-the-mill crimes. Then he met Delante White, a charismatic Washington man charged with distributing cocaine.

(SOUNDBITE OF PHONE RINGING)

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #1: Hello?

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #2: Hello, this a collect call from...

DELANTE WHITE: Delante.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #2: ...an inmate at the Correctional Treatment Facility. To accept charges, press zero...

JOHNSON: White made a lot of calls to his friends and family while he was locked up waiting for his trial to begin almost four years ago. And as a matter of course, calls from inside the jail are recorded. Some of those recordings ultimately became evidence the Justice Department used to go after his defense lawyer, Charles Daum. Take this call from September 2008. While Delante White is on the line, from inside jail, his girlfriend Candice calls the lawyer's office and gets his secretary.

CANDICE ROBERTSON: Mr. Daum there?

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #3: No. I'm waiting for him.

ROBERTSON: Okay. Tell him I can't come this morning because I went to New York to get the stuff that he wanted me to get.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #3: You went to New York to get what he wanted you to get.

ROBERTSON: Yes. Tell him I got a 4-3.

JOHNSON: That stuff the defense lawyer allegedly wanted her to get was a pair of men's Gucci boots, size 43, a decoy, one size smaller than a pair the police photographed in Delante White's apartment. Justice Department prosecutors say the fancy boots were just one part of an elaborate scheme to point the finger away from Delante White. Assistant Attorney General Lanny Breuer says Daum crossed the line.

LANNY BREUER: You do not get to manufacture evidence. You do not get to suborn perjury. You do not get to have people purposefully lie and mislead, and that's what we believe occurred in this case, and that's what Mr. Daum was found guilty of.

JOHNSON: Daum argued the plot was cooked up by Delante White himself, because White was facing a mandatory 20-year prison sentence and the only way to reduce it was to cooperate with the Justice Department. But a judge didn't buy that argument, and she convicted Daum. In her opinion, Judge Gladys Kessler said White, quote, "lied often and well," and she called his girlfriend Candice a total disaster as a witness. But the judge ruled there was no way White could have orchestrated the whole plot from inside a jail cell. Bernie Grimm has been a defense lawyer in Washington for more than 25 years. He defended one of the private investigators working for Daum. He says he is worried about the chilling implications of the case.

BERNIE GRIMM: It's very dangerous when you're representing somebody and you actually think the government's involved in listening to those conversations or the government's going to turn your client one day against you. So what that engenders is a lot of distrust between the lawyer and the client right off the bat.

JOHNSON: The Justice Department never offered a motive, a reason why Daum and his private investigators might have crossed the line. The judge says Daum was only getting $12,000 to defend Delante White. Steve Benjamin is president of the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers. He didn't want to talk about the particulars of the Daum case, but he says there are lots of reasons for defense attorneys to be skeptical.

STEVE BENJAMIN: Of course you never see or hear of prosecutors being prosecuted if there's an instance where they have knowingly used perjured testimony. And that's one thing that is troubling to the defense bar, is what sometimes appears as a double standard.

JOHNSON: But Benjamin agrees with the Justice Department on one key point.

BENJAMIN: It would make no sense whatsoever to present false testimony. If you do that, you're a fool. If you do that, you're relying on a cheap trick to try and subvert the truth.

JOHNSON: Daum is trying to get his conviction on obstruction of justice charges overturned, but that's a long shot. After he's sentenced later this year, he could lose his license to practice law. Carrie Johnson, NPR News, Washington.

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