Prosecutor to forward findings on former public defender to State Bar
CHARLESTON, W.Va. - Kanawha Prosecutor Mark Plants isn't finished with former assistant public defender Steven Conifer, he said.
Conifer, who was charged last year with receiving support from prostitution, was a free man last Monday when Circuit Judge Paul Zakaib signed an order dismissing the charge and releasing his bond.
Plants said he plans to forward the findings of the investigation to the State Bar for review. Conifer was admitted to the Bar in 2008 and currently is inactive, according to the Bar's website.
The Bar is the regulatory body under the umbrella of the state Supreme Court that oversees the licensing of lawyers in the state. Plants said he wanted Conifer's actions to be reviewed for ethical and professional infractions.
The case made headlines in July 2011 when Conifer, 32, who worked for the Kanawha County Public Defender's Office at the time, was arrested. Several computer hard drives and DVDs were confiscated from his home.
Charleston police were acting on a tip from New Jersey authorities that Conifer might have been involved in an online child prostitution scheme.
The hard drives and DVDs were analyzed and investigated. Plants said investigators went through tens of thousands of emails and other documents finding "wildly inappropriate and disgusting conversations" but nothing illegal.
"There was insufficient evidence of a crime, but the evidence we found was disgusting," Plants said.
The prosecutor said the evidence recovered from Conifer's hard drives showed some conversations where he was pretending to be a minor and was chatting online about sexually explicit acts with adults. He also pretended to be a child pimp, Plants said, telling his online contacts, some of whom were known child predators, that he could provide children for sex.
Plants said Conifer had several different screen names or personalities that he used online but the conversations came from his computer and were saved there. He said emails containing pictures also were found but the picture files were corrupt and not viewable.
"Legally there's no way of prosecuting him," Plants said. "Were these terribly gross and inappropriate conversations? Yes. Is it borderline criminal? Yes. But there's nothing more we can do with it."
He said he supported police in their search of Conifer's home and their decision to press charges.
"While we had insufficient evidence to prosecute, probable cause to search was 100 percent there," Plants said. "The police did exactly what they were supposed to do.
"It was just a hoax, but I have no sympathy for anyone who goes online and perpetrates the kinds of things he did. It just so happens that what he did doesn't break any law."
Plants announced in August his office would drop the charge because a year had passed without the case being presented to a grand jury. But after three months the charge remained active in Kanawha Circuit Court.
"They don't automatically disappear," Plants said of criminal charges. "His attorney didn't immediately make the motion for it to be dismissed."
James Cagle, Conifer's attorney, filed a motion to dismiss the charge and release the $5,000 cash bond, paid in July by Ardith Michaux, on Oct. 25.
The motion asserted that three grand jury terms had passed since the case was sent to circuit court from magistrate court and also that the prosecutor's office had stated publicly the case would not go to the grand jury.
The document also claimed "efforts by those who posted the bond to receive their refunds have been rebuffed."
Michaux filed a document on Oct. 17 seeking the money. The request was eventually granted, and without a bond Conifer was sent back to jail.
Conifer was booked into South Central Regional Jail about 9 p.m. Thanksgiving Day. He spent four nights there over the holiday weekend and described the experience as "indescribably awful" in a brief email to the Daily Mail.
The charges were officially dropped last week. Kanawha Circuit Judge Paul Zakaib signed the order dismissing a single charge of receiving support from prostitution just hours after Conifer was released from the jail.
His mother, Dorothy Conifer of Tennessee, posted his $5,000 bond on Nov. 26. Zakaib signed the order hours later.
Conifer declined to comment on the matter itself but said in the email, "I'm extremely relieved it has finally been put to rest.
"I deeply appreciate how efficiently and diligently the circuit clerk's office acted to ensure the re-posting of my bond on Monday morning.
"My mother was profoundly grateful for the kindness and compassion the clerks showed her."
Contact writer Ashley B. Craig at email@example.com or 304-348-4850.