Friday, October 20, 2017
The Louisiana Supreme Court found no misconduct in a case involving a prosecutor's disclosure obligations.
This attorney disciplinary matter arises from formal charges filed by the Office of Disciplinary Counsel (“ODC”) against respondent, Ronald Seastrunk, an assistant district attorney in Vernon Parish. Specifically, ODC alleges respondent violated Rule 3.8(d) of the Louisiana Rules of Professional Conduct in failing to disclose exculpatory evidence. As a result, this Court must now determine an issue of first impression with ramifications beyond this respondent: whether the ethical duty outlined in Rule 3.8(d) is broader than the similar duty outlined by the United States Supreme Court’s landmark case of Brady v. Maryland, 373 U.S. 83, 83 S.Ct. 1194, 10 L.Ed.2d 215 (1963). For the reasons that follow, we find the duties set forth above are coextensive. As a result, we find ODC failed to meet its burden of proof in this case and dismiss all charges against respondent.
The underlying case involved a murder
On June 14, 2010, Christopher Hoffpauir’s body was discovered in a roadside ditch in Vernon Parish. Christopher’s estranged wife, Kristyn Hoffpauir, gave conflicting recorded statements to detectives of the Vernon Parish Sheriff’s Office. In the first statement, on June 15, 2010, Kristyn denied any involvement in her husband’s murder. In the second statement, on June 16, 2010, Kristyn reported that, on the day of the murder, she picked up Sizemore and then called Christopher, asking him to assist her in a roadside emergency. According to Kristyn, she and Sizemore wanted to lure Christopher to their location, because Sizemore wanted to talk to Christopher about his relationship with Kristyn. Kristyn stated that Sizemore got into the trunk of the car because she did not want Christopher to see her with another man. When Christopher arrived, Sizemore exited the trunk through the passenger compartment, got out of the car, and shot and killed Christopher. Sizemore picked up the spent shell casings, and he and Kristyn left the scene. Sizemore stopped the car on a bridge near Lecompte, Louisiana, and threw the gun and spent casings off the bridge. Kristyn denied knowing that Sizemore was going to kill Christopher.
On June 17, 2010, Kristyn participated in a video reenactment of the murder at the crime scene. During the reenactment, Kristyn again related that Sizemore was hiding in the trunk, got out, and shot Christopher.
Sizemore and Kristyn were subsequently indicted for Christopher’s homicide. In advance of trial, Kristyn accepted a plea agreement, wherein she pleaded guilty to manslaughter, conspiracy to commit manslaughter, and obstruction of justice. Sentencing was deferred pending her testimony against Sizemore.
The case was tried three times leading to a conviction. The second trial ended in a mistrial because of disclosure issues.
Respondent shared responsibility for the prosecution with another assistant district attorney.
After the third trial, the judge and defense counsel filed a bar complaint against both trial attorneys and their boss.
The ODC filed charges against the two trial attorneys. The other case was dismissed when the attorney became a judge.
Both the hearing committee and Attorney Disciplinary Board found the Rule 3.8(d) violation.
The underlying facts regarding respondent’s specific conduct are not in dispute. ODC asserts the violations of Rule 3.8(d) arise out of respondent’s alleged failure to disclose Kristyn’s inconsistent statements during her interviews throughout the investigation, as well as respondent’s failure to disclose hearsay statements concerning Kristyn’s possession of a gun...
We reject ODC’s efforts here to broaden Rule 3.8(d) beyond that which Brady and its progeny mandates, and specifically find that the duties outlined in 3.8(d) and Brady are coextensive. ODC’s expansive interpretation of Rule 3.8(d) effectively removes the materiality standard enumerated by Bagley, supra. When confronted with a similar question, other states have also found the disclosure obligations of professional rules are coextensive with the obligations required by Brady.
The court surveyed the landscape of conflicting court opinions and concludes
A broader interpretation of Rule 3.8(d) also invites the use of an ethical rule as a tactical weapon in criminal litigation. We find the practical effect of this potential threat to be poor policy, and, again, decline to adopt the reasoning proffered by ODC.
Justice Weimer concurs
As a preliminary, factual matter, the disciplinary board did not manifestly err in finding that the respondent lacked knowledge of Kristyn Hoffpauir’s varying accounts of her husband’s homicide. Therefore, the only issue remaining is whether respondent committed misconduct by failing to disclose statements concerning Kristyn’s possession of a gun.
The misconduct must be knowing
Apart from a prosecutor “knowing” information is exculpatory, Rule 3.8(d) provides a second path for disclosure–that is for situations in which a prosecutor “should know” that information is exculpatory. However, pursuant to an amendment to Rule 3.8(d), the touchstone for when a prosecutor is tasked with predicting any given piece of information could be exculpatory is reasonableness.
It is perhaps no coincidence that Rule 3.8(d) uses the term “reasonabl[e],” because the Supreme Court has restricted what has become known as the Brady rule by employing the same term: “evidence is material only if there is a reasonable probability that, had the evidence been disclosed to the defense, the result of the proceeding would have been different.” United States v. Bagley, 473 U.S. 667, 682 (1985) (emphasis added).
Instead of requiring a prosecutor to unerringly predict the future of a trial, complete with all strategies that might be employed by the defense, Rule 3.8(d) requires a case-by-case examination of the prosecutor’s conduct, primarily in the context of when it occurred. Here, a narrative to the effect that Kristyn at one time kept a .22 cal. gun was not information that the prosecutor “reasonably should know, either tends to negate the guilt of the accused or mitigates the offense.” Rule 3.8(d). As noted earlier, the respondent knew Kristyn’s husband was killed by a weapon of a different caliber. Should the respondent have, therefore, known that the gun possession narrative could be exculpatory? The mere fact Kristyn may have kept a gun in her closet, years before the murder, does not establish that she ever fired the gun or knew how to fire the larger caliber weapon used to kill her husband. In fact, the detective who learned of the gun possession narrative also learned from Kristyn’s mother that her mother took the gun from Kristyn’s closet and that Kristyn did not even know how to uncock the gun. These facts do not undermine Kristyn’s trial testimony that she was not familiar with guns.
In sum, too many leaping inferences would be required to transform the narrative of Kristyn keeping an unrelated gun in her closet several years before the murder, into evidence that “tends to negate the guilt of the accused or mitigates the offense.” Rule 3.8(d). The prosecution actually used the gun possession narrative in the third trial, which resulted in a conviction, underscoring that the narrative was not exculpatory. Although I do not want to detract from the focus of Rule 3.8(d) being on what the prosecutor reasonably should know at the time, this court does have the unique benefit of evaluating respondent’s conduct in the hindsight context of three trials, and observing that it was only the third trial, in which the gun possession narrative was adduced, that resulted in a conviction. Thus, I find from both the vantage of the circumstances before the third trial and with the benefit of hindsight (which is essentially the inquiry presented by the majority), that there was no reason the respondent “reasonably should know” that the gun narrative was exculpatory for purposes of Rule 3.8(d).
I concur in the result. There were others more culpable in this case than respondent and I do not believe any discipline is appropriate.
The Leesville Daily Leader reported that Kristyn got a 55-year sentence. (Mike Frisch)