Posted: Feb. 20, 2003


By Celia Cohen

Grapevine Political Writer

The lightest possible punishment was handed out by the lawyers' disciplinary system to Wayne N. Elliott, a prominent Dover attorney convicted in a high-profile criminal case for cruelty to animals after he shot a neighbor's dog on his family farm in Sussex County.

Elliott received a private admonition, which cleared the way for him to practice law without interruption as a name partner at Prickett Jones & Elliott, a firm that has been part of the legal firmament in Delaware since the late 19th Century.

The sanctioning occurred on Jan. 14, according to Chief Disciplinary Counsel Mary M. Johnston, whose office handles misconduct cases against Delaware lawyers. While private admonitions by definition are kept confidential, Johnston said this one was an exception under the disciplinary rules because it involved an allegation of criminal conduct and because it already was public knowledge.

Johnston disclosed the disposition of Elliott's case in response to a request Thursday from the Delaware Grapevine.

Victor F. Battaglia Sr., a Wilmington lawyer who represented Elliott, declined comment, saying he believed he had an obligation under the disciplinary system to keep the matter confidential.

The private admonition appears to be the last word in a case that has dragged on for more than a year with twists and turns in timing and in the charges that Elliott faced. At its worst he seemed subject to criminal charges as serious as a gun-related felony and to a legal disciplinary system where penalties range in increasing severity from private admonition, public reprimand and suspension to disbarment.

Elliott, 60, has practiced law since 1967. He is a graduate of Harvard College and the University of Virginia law school and once clerked for the state Supreme Court. The law firm where he works is a fixture of the Delaware bar with more than 20 attorneys in its Wilmington headquarters as well as offices in Dover and Kennett Square, Pa.

Elliott's troubles began on Nov. 14, 2001. As both the prosecution and the defense in his criminal case acknowledged, Elliott returned to his farm in Delmar from deer hunting and shot a seven-month-old boxer he said had frightened his wife. The dog was owned by a neighbor.

Elliott was charged with two felonies, cruelty to animals and possession of a firearm during the commission of a felony. Despite the seriousness of the charges, he was allowed to keep practicing law by the Delaware Supreme Court, which oversees the disciplinary system.

The case dawdled through a constitutional challenge and the 2002 election, where the most volatile race was the one for attorney general. It involved Republican Attorney General M. Jane Brady, whose office was prosecuting Elliott, and Democrat Carl Schnee, a Wilmington attorney who was a former law partner of Elliott's, as well as Green Vivian A. Houghton, a Wilmington attorney whose campaign was based on attacking special treatment for the politically connected. Brady won with 48 percent of the vote.

While Elliott's case could have been as politically volatile as the campaign itself, it did not come to trial until the day after the election, when he pleaded to a single reduced charge -- a misdemeanor for cruelty to animals. The prosecution and the defense said the matter received routine handling with no special treatment.

Elliott was sentenced to a $500 fine, a year of probation, 100 hours of community service at the SPCA, forfeiture of the weapon and restitution to the dog's owner.

He still faced possible disciplinary penalties, however. Johnston said she brought the case to a Preliminary Review Committee, a panel of two lawyers and a layperson functioning as a sort of grand jury, with a recommendation for formal proceedings against Elliott. The names of the committee members are confidential.

The committee offered Elliott the opportunity to consent to a private admonition, which he accepted, Johnston said. Under the disciplinary system, that ended the matter with no provision for her office to pursue it further, she said.

There is precedent for such a conclusion in disciplinary actions against lawyers convicted of criminal misdemeanors, Johnston said. She cited situations that led to private admonitions for a lawyer who was in a fight and a lawyer who let someone drive with a suspended license.

Elliott's case, like the others, ended quietly.