The increasingly unusual investigation into whether Chicago Blackhawks star Patrick Kane raped a woman took another strange twist Thursday night. Buffalo attorney Thomas Eoannou has abruptly dropped Kane’s accuser as a client. Eoannou, who on Wednesday claimed that a bag of evidence pertaining to the case was anonymously delivered to the accuser’s mother, now says that misrepresentations about the bag necessitate that he sever ties with the accuser. Eoannou declined to elaborate on the nature of those alleged misrepresentations, other than they relate to the “manner and means” of the bag’s delivery to his law firm office.
For their part, Erie County officials continue to insist that all of the evidence in the case is accounted for in its original packaging. This assurance implies that the evidence bag delivered to the accuser’s mother contains either fabricated materials or materials that are authentic but unrelated to accusations against Kane. It is unclear at this time if a state law enforcement entity, such as the office of New York Attorney General Eric Schneiderman or the New York State Police, will investigate questions about evidence and chain of custody. As I told SI.com hockey writer Allan Muir on Wednesday, questions about chain of custody could lead to the dismissal of the investigation into Kane. In a press conference late Thursday night, Kane’s attorney, Paul Cambria, responded to Eoannu dropping the accuser as a client by again insisting that prosecutors drop the case. Cambria contends that the series of unusual developments in the case have “victimized” Kane and irreversibly “tainted” the investigation.
There’s a lot to unpack here. For starters, Eoannou hastily and publicly dropping the accuser as a client could expose him to potential discipline in his practice of law. The accuser could file a complaint with the Grievance Committee for the Eighth Judicial District, which oversees the conduct and competence of attorneys who practice in Erie County. Attorneys are generally obligated to maintain a client relationship, especially when withdrawing from representation could harm the client’s case. It could be argued that Eoannou picked a relatively good time to drop the accuser as a client. The accuser has not commenced civil litigation against Kane, meaning no case has started. Typically the worst time for an attorney to drop a client is in the middle of a case; here, we are only at the very beginning of the litigation. Moreover, Erie County prosecutors, not the accuser, would bring a criminal case against Kane; the accuser’s role in any prosecution would only be as a potential witness. Eoannou also has another duty as an attorney: to effectively advocate for a client. If the accuser has caused Eoannou to feel doubt about the case, it would be more appropriate for Eoannou to drop the accuser now than to represent her in an ambivalent way.
On the other hand, Eoannou adopted the somewhat unusual step of announcing to the world why he was dropping the accuser and he also chose to do so in a press conference. Attorneys usually try to minimize potential damage to a former client, not generate media attention that might reflect poorly on that client. Along those lines, Eoannou’s explanation for dropping the accuser could raise doubts about the accuser’s believability. These doubts would not only impact a potential prosecution against Kane but might also present problems for the accuser if she sues Kane for battery, false imprisonment, intentional infliction of emotional distress or other potential civil claims. Lastly, any court that reviews Eoannou’s conduct in representing the accuser might wonder why he did not have all necessary assurances about the evidence bag before conducting a press conference in which he seemed extremely confident in the bag.
For prosecutors, Eoannou dropping the accuser does not stop the case against Kane. They can continue to build evidence and potentially convene a grand jury. Eoannou dropping the accuser as a client, however, might cause a delay in any decision to charge Kane or drop the investigation. It has been reported (though refuted by Cambria) that Kane and the accuser have been in negotiations, which would likely entail discussions about a possible out-of-court settlement whereby Kane would pay the accuser some amount of money in exchange for her agreeing to not testify against him and to not bring any civil claims against him. Such a deal would effectively end the criminal case against Kane, since prosecutors likely need the accuser as a witness in order to secure a conviction. Eoannou’s departure, however, means that the accuser will probably need to retain a new negotiator in any settlement talks.
More significantly, Eoannou dropping the accuser might cause prosecutors to question whether the accuser and/or her family members would be believable witnesses in court. In announcing the end of his attorney-client relationship with the accuser, Eoannou was careful not to claim the evidence bag contained falsified materials. Instead, he focused his critique on the “manner and means” in which he received the bag. Still, prosecutors might wonder why the accuser’s attorney would so hurriedly drop the accuser as a client if he did not have serious reservations. If prosecutors begin to develop doubts about the accuser, they are less likely to seek charges against Kane.
The next several days will be crucial in the investigation into Kane. Erie County District Attorney Frank Sedita III is expected to hold a press conference Friday at 10 a.m. local time to discuss the investigation into Kane. At that time he might also address the evidence box sent to the accuser’s mother.
Michael McCann is a Massachusetts attorney and the founding director of the Sports and Entertainment Law Institute at the University of New Hampshire School of Law. This fall he is teaching an undergraduate course at UNH titled “Deflategate.” McCann is also the distinguished visiting Hall of Fame Professor of Law at Mississippi College School of Law and he teaches “Intellectual Property Law in Sports” in the Oregon Law Sports Law Institute.