Prosecutorial Misconduct in Texas Murder Trials: Prosecutors Fighting Against Misconduct Allegations
Prosecutors in Texas doing bad things is a serious problem – and one that is slow to be corrected. We’ve discussed this issue in case after case, coming from all parts of the state, for several years now. For past examples, read our posts including:
- August 2015: District Attorneys Keep Doing Bad Things: More Texas Prosecutorial Misconduct Stories
- February 2015: Prosecutorial Misconduct Still a Big, Big Problem: District Attorneys Do Bad Things
- July 2013: Prosecutorial Misconduct Allegations Against Four Top Texas District Attorneys: Update
- March 2011: Texas DA Pleads Guilty to Felonies: Will Serve Jail Time, Pay Fine – and Return $2.16 Million He Took.
Today, let’s look at three recent examples of murder trials where prosecutors have been accused of prosecutorial misconduct. These are all murder trials where defendants faced many years behind bars if convicted, and where prosecutorial careers can be made (homicides are big felonies and big wins for a D.A.).
Consider the following:
1. Corpus Christi Judge Finds Prosecutorial Misconduct in Murder Trial
Down in Corpus Christi a couple of weeks ago, a conviction got overturned by a Texas district court judge and a new trial ordered because the judge found prosecutorial misconduct happened in the criminal trial.
Judge Nanette Hasette let Courtney Hayden out of jail and put her on house arrest while things were figured out. The charges against Ms. Hayden involved a robbery where her alleged partner in the crime, Anthony Macias, was killed were not dismissed. Ms. Hayden remains charged with aggravated robbery and the killing of Mr. Macias.
According to Judge Hasette (quoting from her order), here’s what the prosecutors from the Nueces County District Attorney’s Office did:
“The court concludes that the intentional suppression of evidence and lack of timely disclosure of exculpatory, mitigating and impeachment evidence described herein constitutes prosecutorial misconduct and undermines the confidence of the public in the judicial system, and the outcome of this trial specifically.”
What was presented to Judge Hasette by the defense was evidence that after Courtney Hayden had been sentenced by the jury to 40 years behind bars, and the prosecution got their win, the prosecutor’s office faxed over the medical examiner’s initial opinion to Hayden’s lawyers. Seems that the medical examiner thought at first that the gunshot wound was up close to the victim’s chest, but he testified at trial that the gunshot was from several feet away from the victim.
If the initial opinion had been given to the defense team before the trial, it would have supported Hayden’s argument of self-defense. Shooting someone that close is much different than pulling a trigger from three feet away — and that’s not all. There was also a comment from the medical examiner about “highlighting” his testimony differently, depending upon who had called him to the stand, something else that the prosecution had a duty to share with the defense.
After all this, the prosecutors agreed to the Motion for New Trial presented by Hayden’s defense lawyers. (They just didn’t agree with being labeled with “prosecutorial misconduct”.)
The judge wouldn’t just sign an agreed order for a new trial — she held a hearing and issued her ruling.
So what did the Nueces County District Attorney do next? Took the case up to the Texas Court of Appeals (13th District), asking the appeals court to grade Judge Hasette’s papers. The D.A. down there isn’t happy that prosecutorial misconduct was found in the Hayden murder trial and is in for the fight.
2. January 2016, Houston Judge Allows Murder Trial Over Defense Argument of Prosecutorial Misconduct in Paying Witnesses
Over in Houston last month, another murder trial was underway where criminal defense lawyers were moving the judge for justice over prosecutorial misconduct – but the criminal trial judge there ruled that the jury would not be hearing any evidence of the Harris County District Attorney’s Office making deals on the side with witnesses who would be testifying for the prosecutor. The defense presented evidence to the judge that three witnesses for the prosecution were paid a total of $5000 in secret deals (no one bothered to tell the defense about these payments).
It was only during the criminal defense team’s own investigation and trial preparation that they learned about the payments of money to the state’s witnesses — and paying for testimony is a clear basis for a prosecutorial misconduct claim.
The prosecutor’s argument? They didn’t know about the payments because the money came from the FBI, not the DA’s Office. (Like they never work together on a case, or discuss things, right?)
So, looks like there’s an appeal coming up over in Houston by the defense team based upon prosecutorial misconduct in the rewarding of witnesses with cash.
Notice that no one is denying that this money got paid ….
3. Freed after Case of Prosecutorial Misconduct In Dallas Murder Trial; Still Waiting For Exoneration
Here in Dallas, there’s no argument that two men (Dennis Allen and Stanley Mozee) were victims of wrongful prosecution. These two were convicted on murder charges and served 15 years behind bars before they were freed because (1) it was shown that critical evidence had been withheld in their case; and (2) the Innocence Project had DNA testing done and presented evidence that someone else is responsible for the killing.
So, in October 2014 the two men were freed. (Details are here in the Innocence Project of Texas’ news release of the two men being released.)
But their case isn’t over by a long shot. Now their case for full exoneration sets before the highest criminal court in the state, which has to issue its finding that the two men be fully exonerated. That’s pending. Why?
First, the attorney who served as prosecutor in their trial for the murder of shop owner and pastor Jesse Borns, Jr., argues that this is all a big political brouhaha and he didn’t do anything wrong. According to him, the current prosecutors’ acknowledgment of misconduct is all politically motivated and not true.
And he’s got an argument to place before the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals that’s got some backing because a Dallas County judge ruled that there was no hidden evidence in the case.
What? That’s right.
Nevermind that there was evidence presented that the prosecutor or someone on his team (like the police) made deals with witnesses who they used in their case against Allen and Mozee to get testimony against the defendants in exchange for favors from the state.
Like one inmate who testified that Mozee had confessed he did the killing while they were both behind bars in the Dallas jail. This informant testified against both men, and the Innocence Project had evidence that this informant got special treatment in exchange for telling his story on the stand — and that none of the special deals for favorable treatment for this informant or several other witnesses was ever shared with the defense lawyers for the two defendants.
In October 2015, there was a hearing on all this upon the request of the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals. The then-prosecutor took the witness stand and denied doing anything wrong. He didn’t know of any deals. He didn’t do deals with informants before they took the witness stand as a matter of S.O.P. (standard operating procedure).
Then a twist: here in Dallas, District Judge Teresa Hawthorne issuing her ruling in the then-prosecutor’s favor. So, the CCA orders an evidentiary hearing and the result is the Dallas judge telling the CCA that’s there’s no problem here.
Texas Prosecutorial Misconduct Is a Huge Crisis in Our Criminal Justice System
There is a crisis in our current criminal justice system, and it involves prosecutorial misconduct. It’s a problem for Dallas and North Texas; it’s an issue for the entire state; and it’s a reality in criminal proceedings across the country.
And from the look of things, prosecutorial misconduct isn’t going away — it’s hard to discover, and it’s hard to stop when it is found. The defendant may get freed, or get a new trial— but prosecutors are not facing much in the way of personal penalties if they’re found out.
For more, read the recent HuffPo article, “Prosecutors Are Almost Never Disciplined For Misconduct.”
Sure, Charles Sebesta has been disbarred for prosecutorial misconduct in the wrongful conviction of Anthony Graves. But that’s a single case — is it really sending a message? Many would argue no.
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