updated 7/19/2009 1:51:56 PM ET 2009-07-19T17:51:56

Hundreds of criminal convictions, including that of a man found guilty of a crash that killed three people, could return to court because the Indiana prosecutor who oversaw the cases had an inactive law license for more than three years.

Newton County Prosecutor Ed Barce asked the state to change his license status in August 2005, saying he did not practice law in Indiana. Yet he continued to prosecute cases.

Barce, who has since reactivated his license, denies committing misconduct. He may have a sound defense: Indiana's constitution requires prosecutors to have law licenses before taking office but doesn't specify that they must keep them active. Legal experts say they're baffled by the case but doubt whether Barce's inactive license could be enough to throw out the convictions.

"Why in God's name did he put himself in this position?" asked John A. Strait, a Seattle University School of Law professor.

The state Supreme Court set a disciplinary hearing Oct. 16 and Barce could be disbarred, reprimanded or suspended.

Nevertheless, even the prospect of returning to court disappoints Pam Schoonveld. Barce prosecuted the case in which a man was sentenced to 12 years for the crash that killed her parents and another person.

"I'm a registered nurse and I'm not even allowed to work if I don't have proof of my license the day after it expires," Schoonveld said. "I just presumed if you were a lawyer it would be the same thing, especially if you're the prosecutor of the whole county."

Barce's status became known in February when a Lake Superior Court judge learned his license was inactive and delayed a trial in which Barce was special prosecutor. Last month, the judge declined to dismiss the case, saying that no harm was done.

Barce, 50, has not explained his actions and he did not return calls from The Associated Press. His attorney, Kevin McGoff, said he didn't know of any cases other than the Lake Superior Court one that were affected by Barce's status. He declined further comment.

The Republican prosecutor, who was unopposed in the last three elections, comes from a family of prosecutors and is known as fair.

"He's just not a glory hound," Newton County Superior Court Judge Daniel J. Molter said. "He's not afraid to do what he thinks is right, one way or the other."

Retired Indiana University law professor Henry Karlson said the state Supreme Court can hold prosecutors to a higher standard than the constitution through the disciplinary hearing.

Strait said Barce could argue he was an elected prosecutor and wasn't practicing law, but legal experts doubted that would fly.

"To be a prosecutor and to walk into a courtroom in any state in America you have to A, be licensed, and B, have to have active status," said Scott Burns, executive director of the National District Attorneys Association.

Slim odds cases would be overturned
All 91 Indiana prosecutors have active law licenses, according to court records.

"You're just a lawyer with one client ... the state of Indiana. Certainly it's practicing law," said Jack Crawford, a former Lake County prosecutor who is now a defense attorney.

Judge Molter said that while Barce has a deputy, all the cases in his office go through him.

"Ed's the final voice," Molter said.

According to the complaint, when Barce's license was inactive his office filed more than 1,000 felony and misdemeanor cases. Donald R. Lundberg, the disciplinary commission's executive secretary, estimated that more than half likely resulted in convictions.

Those cases could now be taken back to court.

But Indiana University School of Law Professor Joel Schumm said the odds of overturning such cases were "very slim to none at all."

Defendants would have to show Barce's status affected their trial's outcome.

Also, legal precedent sides with prosecutors.

The Indiana Supreme Court in 1998 found no harm was done when an out-of-state attorney served on a team of prosecutors without a valid license. The high court let the conviction stand.

Copyright 2009 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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